The Need for Highly Qualified Staff at Core Research Facilities: An Analogy with Medical Diagnostics

Many universities are developing “core facilities”—i.e., research infrastructure that is open to researchers from across the university and that may be available to outside users as well. Operating core facilities so a wide range of researchers can access specialized research tools is a way to maximize usage of, and potential impact from, infrastructure that often represents millions of dollars in capital.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Research Administrators (Nov 1, 2021)
Image:  Medical radiation technologist examines MRI results. (shutterstock)

To ensure that core facilities can be used effectively by a range of researchers, core facilities need to be supported by highly qualified staff. This is a key difference from other labs that serve only one or a few research groups that specialize in the techniques available in these labs.

Attempts to rely on the part-time efforts of students—a group with a rapid turnover rate—are often not effective to maximize the use of core facilities. I experienced this ineffectiveness firsthand as a graduate student when I received some pointers on how to use a new apparatus from a professor and a student who had used it only once or twice themselves. After several unsuccessful attempts to produce meaningful results, some other students and I diverted our efforts more productively elsewhere. The apparatus, valued at around $500,000, had been funded as part of a multimillion-dollar grant to purchase a set of equipment that, if operated collectively as a core facility, could have been a tremendously valuable resource to students and faculty researchers from several departments in the university. How different would my student experience have been if this apparatus had been offered as part of a “core facility” that had even one technician who was an expert in its operation?

Research infrastructure is sometimes compared to roads, which are built to benefit a wide range of users, from commuters to emergency services. Similarly, research infrastructure is funded by governments so users can conduct research and generate knowledge that will benefit all of society. However, the roads analogy falls short when it suggests that governments can fund research infrastructure once, and then leave it alone with little to no concern for its ongoing operation. This is simply not the case.

Research infrastructure requires expert staff to make sure that users can take full advantage of the research tools on offer. In this respect, research infrastructure is less like roads and more like the medical diagnostic imaging facilities that host MRI machines and CT scanners. These centralized medical facilities are supported by highly trained specialists who aid in the diagnosis of patients by operating the equipment, helping to interpret the results, and providing other essential services like ensuring the equipment is maintained in a state of readiness. Without these trained specialists, the “users” who order the tests (e.g., family doctors and surgeons) cannot effectively diagnose and treat patient illness and disease.

What if governments took a “fund it once and then leave it to the users” approach to MRI machines and CT scanners? That is, what if family doctors and surgeons were left to operate this highly specialized equipment on their own? Would that be a good use of their time? Most likely, fewer patients would be diagnosed due to doctors’ time constraints. One can also imagine an increase in failed diagnostic tests or wrongly interpreted results. Certainly, the health of patients would suffer.

Universities’ core research facilities can be even more complicated to operate and maintain than medical diagnostic facilities—and a “fund it once and then leave it to the users” approach is just as ineffective. The faculty researchers who use a core facility are often not experts in the facility’s equipment. These professors and their students would therefore produce more and better results if the core facility was supported with appropriate expertise.

Core facilities lie midway between a single-professor lab and a large-scale national laboratory, such as Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, SNOLAB, the Canadian Light Source, or Canada’s National Design Network. Large-scale research infrastructure requires many scientific and engineering experts to maintain the state-of-the-art equipment, develop new applications of the infrastructure, and foster a community of researchers who can fully exploit the facility to advance Canadian research priorities. The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) acknowledges the need for in-house expertise and provides funding for this purpose through its Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund—but this fund is only for large-scale facilities.

Core facilities are often challenged to cover the costs of essential, highly qualified scientific and technical staff when relying primarily on limited funds from within the university. Inadequate support may be one reason core facilities have been less successful in attracting further investment through the CFI Innovation Fund.

Clearly, there is a role for a research funding mechanism to support the operations of mid-sized core research facilities. With the CFI receiving stable funding beginning in 2023, the door may be open to such a program.

In the meantime, universities may need to make the difficult decision to fully fund their core research facilities’ operations themselves. Those that get ahead of the game by proactively providing their core facilities with adequate staff now will be better able to compete for operating funds in the future when such a competition becomes available. Indeed, facilities that do invest now will be more successful because they will have higher usage rates and higher numbers of successful experiments. What’s more, over time, they will build a stronger track record of research impact.

Proposals to fund national facilities are more successful, new data shows

Consolidating research infrastructure into national facilities that support large user communities can be an effective use of resources and can enable scientific progress that is often not possible using smaller local facilities (generally referred to as “core” facilities). National facilities play a major role in facilitating cooperation among their user communities, leading to greater coherence as they present opportunities for research investment to funding agencies.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Research Administrators (June 21, 2021)
Image:  Canada Foundation for Innovation. “2020 Innovation Fund: By the Numbers.”

Research communities, such as subatomic physics or astronomy, that collectively prioritize their projects in a strategic or long-range plan are more successful in funding competitions. Projects that have already been evaluated by their communities for importance and feasibility are likely to have high merit—and are likely to appear to have high merit to a reviewer.

Strategic plans can also help secure funding opportunities beyond calls for funding proposals. If a government decision-maker is considering a direct investment in project A, she doesn’t want to be surprised later by a request to fund competing project B, which she didn’t know about. When government decision-makers know that an entire scientific community has agreed on the request, they don’t have to worry about juggling competing requests.

National facilities often play a critical role in enabling the strategic or long-range planning initiatives of a research community. National facilities bring professional perspectives that are complementary to those of their users. Furthermore, they often supply financial and logistical resources for these planning processes. In fact, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) expects all national facilities it funds to have strategic plans already in place because strategic planning for major research facilities is an important part of good governance. Costs associated with hosting planning sessions and meetings to consult stakeholders, hiring consultants for strategic planning purposes, and conducting related communications and outreach activities are all eligible expenses under the CFI Major Science Initiatives Fund.

The support that national facilities provide to the strategic work of the community continues into the development of project ideas and corresponding funding applications. For large applications—proposals to the CFI Innovation Fund, for example—such assistance to develop an application can be invaluable. And the CFI funding data shows this value: In the CFI 2020 Innovation Fund, funding proposals in support of a national facility had a success rate of 47%, compared to the average of 35% (see figure above). Only 28% of proposals from core facilities were successful.

Proposals for research infrastructure that are “in support of” a national facility are typically for infrastructure that the national facility has agreed to host or operate. These proposals in turn will naturally be supported by the facility. For instance, the facility may employ the time of professionals to support communications and outreach to project stakeholders. It may draw on its network of users and partners to help build a strong and diverse project team. It may bring expertise in management and operations to demonstrate the sustainability of a project and a track record of delivering benefits from similar projects. It may also offer support to the applicant team in terms of proposal writing and project management expertise to ease their administrative burden.

In short, proposals in support of national facilities are more successful at securing funding, in part because national facilities help maintain coherence among a broad user community via strategic planning processes, and because these larger facilities provide specialized professional resources to complement the scientific expertise of the applicants.

If you, as a research administrator, are evaluating proposals to support with CFI institutional envelope, consider putting some of your support behind proposals that are part of a coherent national strategy for a research field, and that are being developed with professional support from national facilities. The data shows that this is an effective strategy and will allow you to leverage the substantial investments in these national facilities.

Scheduling a meeting? Save everyone some time with these simple, considerate behaviours

Have you ever spent more time trying to schedule a meeting than was spent on the meeting itself? Are you often interrupted by emails or instant messages from others who are trying to schedule some time for a simple conversation in the next few days?

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc. (June 11, 2021). Image: Shutterstock.

Six common time wasters

Minimizing interruptions is essential to the productivity of today’s knowledge workers. Taking just a few steps to cut out these six common time-wasting behaviours when scheduling a meeting will not only benefit you, but will also show consideration for others’ time.

Time Waster #1: Vague meeting request

A message from Sally asks, “Should we meet sometime to discuss Project X? What do you think?”

No reason for a meeting is specified, which shifts the burden of thinking about whether a meeting is needed onto you. If she is serious about the need for a meeting, then she should state why and take initiative to offer some times that work for her.

Time Waster #2: Unclear scheduling question

On Friday afternoon, Li sends this message to the Project team: “We need to discuss the status of Project X because (list of reasons here). Perhaps we should meet sometime next week?”

Although he has provided a desired time range (i.e., next week) and a valid reason for the meeting, he has said nothing about why it needs to happen next week or when he is available within that five-day range, thereby shifting the scheduling burden onto others. Furthermore, it isn’t clear who is responsible to determine whether the team should meet at all, or who should set the meeting time.

Time Waster #3: Non-specific response

Project team member Rita replies to everyone, “Thursday may work for me, depending on the time.”

How should her teammates interpret that reply? She hasn’t shared the critical information: What time on Thursday would work for her? And what times on the other four days could work, if any? Almost certainly someone will have to prod her for more information, wasting more time.

Time Waster #4: Offering only one option

Then Arun asks, “Can we meet on Thursday at 1:00 pm?” Nearly everyone agrees. Then Jill, the last invitee to respond, says she can’t make it at that time. The cycle repeats with, “Can we meet Wednesday at 10:00 am?” That option looks promising based on the first few responses, but ultimately doesn’t work out. So the cycle repeats again and again, causing frustration (and wasted time) for everyone.

Time Waster #5: Time preference seeking

On Tuesday, Anton gets the idea to offer three options that haven’t been tried yet: Thursday at 3:00 pm, Friday at 10:00 am, and Friday at 1:00 pm. Mariam replies to everyone, “Friday at 1:00 pm is best for me.”

Mariam has shared her preference, but not any information about her availability for the other two options, which will surely lead to further messages and more wasted time if Friday at 1:00 pm isn’t the best for everyone else as well.

Time Waster #6: Non-committal meeting invitation

Now it is Wednesday. Arun tries to end the confusion with, “OK. Let’s aim for Monday at 3:00 pm. Thanks.”

Unfortunately, there is no commitment here. The non-committal wording “Let’s aim for Monday at 3:00 pm” means that the door to rescheduling has been left open, and the cycle may start again if someone raises an issue with the indicated time.

Using considerate scheduling protocols to cut out the time wasters

Getting clear schedule information is the key to scheduling a meeting efficiently. Ideally, if everyone maintained an up-to-date calendar that was accessible to everyone else, finding a time would be simple. But this is usually not the case.

There are some free online tools that allow invitees to input their availability and then show the best available time for the group overall. Such tools are particularly helpful when a meeting has a lot of invitees.  

When you are limited to email or instant messages, everyone must be forthcoming about when they are available to meet. The most considerate questions and responses will be clear, specific, and provide all the needed information. Be sure to keep the following considerate protocols in mind.

Considerate Protocol #1: Justify the meeting

The requester of the meeting should justify why the meeting is necessary, so people understand their need to participate and are motivated to respond effectively and efficiently to the request.

Considerate Protocol #2: Proactively offer multiple time ranges over several days

Take the initiative to set a good example by offering multiple options for the meeting, expressed as ranges of time. For example, don’t say “I’m available Friday at 1:00 pm.” Rather, say, “I’m available Thursday after 2:00 pm and Friday between 1:00 and 3:00 pm.”

The greater the number of attendees, the more options you need to offer to avoid multiple rounds of scheduling messages.

Considerate Protocol #3: Proactively offer all times that you are available

To maximize the probability of finding a time quickly, you need to provide all the times that you could be available. Often, the most efficient way to express your availability is by stating the times when you are unavailable. For example, “I’m available any time this week except Thursday from 1:00 to 2:00 pm and Friday from 10:00 am to noon.”

Considerate Protocol #4: Volunteer to take on the scheduling role

Proactively take responsibility to schedule the meeting—especially if youare the one who requested it. Ask people to send their availabilities to you directly, so they don’t spam everyone by using “Reply All.” Otherwise, invitees may be uncertain about who is actually responsible for finalizing the meeting time. Taking over this responsibility will ultimately save you time by avoiding the dithering that may result when no one takes the initiative to set a date and time.

Don’t look at it as extra work. Rather, if there is more than one option that works for everyone, then you get to choose the time!

Considerate Protocol #5: Send meeting requests well in advance

Unless the meeting is with people you are in frequent contact with, offer times a week in advance. The more attendees, the longer the lead time you may need. An additional benefit to this strategy is that people are more likely to agree to meetings that are still a week out.

Never offer times that are such short notice that it would require people to respond during their off-hours. For instance, sending a message at 5:30 pm on a Friday saying “Can we meet first thing Monday morning at 8:00 am?” is not considerate of others’ personal time.

Considerate Protocol #6: Every invitee should give a concrete response that covers all of the times offered

If you are responding to a meeting request, be forthcoming about when you are available to meet. Don’t dither with “maybes” or preferences. Commit to being either available or not. Don’t hold back information about your availability in hopes of getting a time that works better for you. If others play that game too, the meeting will almost certainly be delayed—which in turn reduces the time available to deal with the urgent matter for which the meeting is needed.

If you are responding to the times offered, say something like, “I’m available all of those times except for Friday at 10:00 am to noon,” and only say that if you already have a prior commitment on Friday during that time. 

Set the example, and don’t expect or accept less consideration from others.

Considerate Protocol #7: Only send responses to the person scheduling the meeting

Use of “Reply All” on a scheduling email is often a sign that it isn’t clear who is responsible to schedule the meeting. As a result, the wasted time multiplies with the number of invitees.

Considerate Protocol #8: Allow the scheduler to be scheduler

The scheduler may have access to more calendar information than you, so don’t jump in with your own decision about the meeting time. Acting on incomplete information is likely to confuse others and may start another round of scheduling messages—or worse, seem disrespectful to the scheduler. If you think there is enough information to set the meeting but the scheduler hasn’t acted, inquire to him or her directly.

The bottom line

Clearly justify the reasons for the meeting well in advance. Openly share all the time ranges in which you are available over a multiple-day period. Take responsibility to set the meeting time and date by asking invitees to send their responses to you directly. If you are not the scheduler, send the scheduler a concrete response about your availability for all the times offered.  

By setting a good example, others may soon recognize the value of these simple, considerate behaviours that reduce the time lost to back-and-forth messages about scheduling—especially when that time could be much better spent preparing for the meeting about the urgent issue at hand.

House of Commons to create new committee on science

Science will get a boost in attention from federal Members of Parliament with a new committee on science and research beginning in the next term of parliament.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (June 6, 2021)
Image: Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan championed the new committee. The Hill Times / Andrew Meade

Former Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan’s motion to create the committee passed the House in late May. Duncan, currently Deputy House Leader of the Government, spoke in the House concerning the need for this committee:

Science and research should have a permanent place where issues that are important to the research community, Canadians and the future of the country can be studied; where scientists, researchers and parliamentarians can come to know one another; where parliamentarians can get a better understanding of science and research; where parliamentarians can learn about Canada’s research strengths in areas such as computer science applications, fuel cells, neurodegeneration, personalized medicine, bioinformatics and regenerative medicine; and where parliamentarians can learn about what is needed to make improvements and yield benefits to Canadians.

Elected representatives need to be able to get informed and up-to-date answers about science issues to make informed decisions—so it isn’t surprising that Canada has tried similar committees before or that they exist in other countries.

The United Kingdom has a Science and Technology Committee for both its House of Commons and its House of Lords. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee defines its purpose as being to “ensure that Government policies and decision-making are based on solid scientific evidence and advice,” and notes that science and technology issues affect many government departments.

In Canada, the creation of a Standing Committee on Science and Research mirrors similar changes in the executive branch of the Canadian government. In the federal civil service, science policy has traditionally been housed within the industry portfolio, most recently named Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada—a mammoth department that oversees a large portfolio of federal agencies. Such a huge department might not be able to give science the focus it deserves. And even if it could, science issues affect most if not all other government departments and activities well beyond innovation, science, and economic development.

As a result, other changes within the federal government have been made to bring science issues to the forefront. For instance, the position of Minister of Science existed in Canada from 2015 to 2019 and elevated the attention on science issues within the executive branch. In 2017, the Minister of Science created the position of Chief Science Advisor of Canada, which now helps to coordinate science issues across departments and can provide advice to any member of Cabinet as appropriate.

Furthermore, in Parliament, science policy can get lost in the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (often simply called the industry committee). In the debates around the motion to create the new Standing Committee on Science and Research, MP Marilyn Gladu pointed out that science issues tend to get treated as lower priority within the industry committee—a committee that is “one of the broadest of all committees. The mandate of the industry committee covers 17 departments and agencies and 36 acts,” as noted by MP Mario Simard in support of the motion.

On the other hand, a committee dedicated wholly to science would, in MP Simon-Pierre Savard-Tremblay’s words, “ensure that science and research are given all the attention they deserve… and political decisions must be made based on evidence and critical analysis.”

Furthermore, the new committee will align with the relatively new role of the Chief Science Advisor of Canada and may help to entrench this position permanently. This committee will consider all the reports of the Chief Science Advisor, therefore, it will give the Chief Science Advisor a parliamentary forum and opportunity to interact directly with MPs outside of the Cabinet.

Entrenchment is important because such positions can easily disappear. A similar position, the former Office of the National Science Advisor, lasted only one term (2004 to 2008). The Cabinet position of Minister of Science similarly lasted only one term.

Entrenchment of science and research into the permanent fabric of the House of Commons was another theme of MP Duncan’s argument for the new committee:

Science and research are a public good that we must all protect. One of the best ways to protect science is to have a dedicated standing committee in the House of Commons. My friends and colleagues, with this motion, we have an opportunity to do something really important. We have an opportunity to embed science and research into one of our most important democratic institutions and build a better future for all Canadians.

While the Canadian science community must learn from past lessons about how not to engage with such a parliamentary committee (e.g., unidirectional lobbyist activity, etc.), it should welcome the opportunities that the new committee will bring, including increased attention on science and engagement with MPs on important issues that affect the quality of life of all Canadians.

Physics in the 2021 federal budget

The 2021 Federal Budget provides new funding for quantum technology, artificial intelligence, clean energy technologies, life sciences and student internships.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Association of Physicists (Apr. 20, 2021)

Physicists working in quantum research and development are sure to be pleased with $360M announced in the budget to launch a National Quantum Strategy, which aims to amplify Canada’s significant strength in quantum research, as well as related quantum technology and innovation. Others working in photonics may benefit from $90M to retool and modernize the Canadian Photonics Fabrication Centre at the National Research Council. Those in artificial intelligence will welcome $444M for renewal of the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy for 10 years. Notably, over $200M of this amount is for programs that will be delivered by CIFAR.

By far, the biggest new investments in research and innovation this year are in the two areas of clean energy technologies and of life sciences and technologies. Physicists working in clean energy technologies may benefit indirectly from over $5B in new funding invested in the Strategic Innovation Fund’s Net Zero Accelerator. Since this Fund and several other initiatives in the Budget encourage industry to implement projects that support clean energy technologies through this Fund, demand for research that enables these technologies is likely to continue to remain strong.

While COVID-19 has driven the focus on life sciences, not all of the new investments are directly related to the pandemic. Of over $2B in new investments in life sciences, three investments are mostly likely to be of interest to biophysicists: (1) The Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) will receive $500M for funding of bio-science infrastructure. (2) The tri-councils will receive $250M for a new biomedical research fund. As a tri-council fund, it is clearly positioned to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration and physicists working in such collaboration could access these funds. (3) The budget provides $400M for Pan-Canadian Genomics Strategy, including $137M for programs delivered by Genome Canada.

In fact, these are the only new funds provided to either of the two agencies that physicists most rely on—the CFI and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)—except for a $47M investment in the NSERC to applied research and development projects led by Canadian businesses in collaboration with colleges, CEGEPs, and polytechnics.

Budget 2021 provides some good news for students and post-docs in research fields. Mitacs will receive over $700M over five years to create at least “85,000 work-integrated learning placements,” through its internship programs that focus on research-based innovation in industry. Students in all science and technology fields could benefit from these on-the-job learning opportunities. The budget also pledges to adjust the tax code to enable post-docs to earn RRSP room on their income.

While these targeted investments may be timely and of strategic value, it is clear that Canada’s Fundamental Science Review in 2017 is no longer driving the budget decisions. This review led to a large focus on science in the 2018 budget. The last budget in 2019 (there was no budget in 2020) made some smaller steps that could be connected back to the Review. The Review recommended a new approach for funding so-called “third-party science and research” organizations, such as Genome Canada, Mitacs, and Brain Canada, that operate outside the jurisdiction of the granting agencies. Budget 2019 announced that the Minister of Science would create a new “Strategic Science Fund” that would rationalize funding for the growing number of such organizations. However, two years later, no such Strategic Science Fund has been established, and Budget 2021 continues ad hoc investments in Genome Canada and Mitacs. Furthermore, Canada no longer has a Minister of Science to deliver on that commitment.

Relevant excerpts from the 2020 federal budget are provided in the original article.

Client awarded $14M in federal funds toward $47M national infrastructure project

TVB Associates was pleased to have a strategic role supporting McMaster University in a national proposal for a $47M project for infrastructure for neutron beams. This project, entitled “Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering”, was supported by 17 universities across Canada. The Canada Foundation for Innovation awarded its contribution to the project, $14.25M, in March 2021 through its 2020 Innovation Fund competition.

Project initiation awaits decisions for matching contributions from provincial governments of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

Project Summary

“Building a Future for Canadian Neutron Scattering” is a national project that will enable research and innovation in areas such as materials for clean energy technology, materials for structural integrity of reliability-critical components of vehicles or nuclear power plants, biomaterials for understanding and combating disease, and materials for information technology.

Neutron beams are versatile and irreplaceable 21st century tools for studying materials and are needed by a Canadian research community that includes about 100 principal investigators from over 30 universities. Access to neutron beams is urgently needed following the recent closure of the Canadian Neutron Beam Centre and the expiry of Canada’s only agreement for access to a foreign neutron beam facility. Now, the McMaster Nuclear Reactor is Canada’s only major neutron source, and this project will complete its neutron beam lab by adding three neutron beamlines. To enable experiments that require high neutron brightness, the project will build partnerships with two world leading neutron beam facilities in the US.

Potential benefits of the research include technologies to reduced greenhouse gas emissions; enhanced reliability and competitiveness of Canadian nuclear power and auto parts manufacturing industries; knowledge to aid the fight against cancer, Alzheimer’s, and antibiotic resistance; and knowledge of quantum materials that could enable breakthroughs in information technology devices.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
McMaster’s announcement: Five McMaster projects get $35M in federal funding (March 2021)
Photo: McMaster Nuclear Reactor (Photo by Georgia Kirkos, McMaster University)

National neutron strategy consultation draft released

TVB Associates was pleased to support the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) working group by writing its national neutron strategy discussion paper. The consultation draft was released publicly following the CNI-CIFAR Roundtable on a National Neutron Strategy. This strategy has emerged from consultative processes over the past several years.

Canada’s social, environmental and economic challenges require a complete twenty-first century scientific toolkit for research and innovation in materials. Because everything is made of materials, innovation in materials underpins nearly all technology advances for national priorities, including:

The strategy identifies four key objectives that are essential to put into place the required infrastructure and governance framework to enable Canadians to use neutron beams:

  1. Forge partnerships with high-brightness neutron sources in other countries;
  2. Build on existing domestic capabilities, including full exploitation of the McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR), a medium-brightness neutron source;
  3. Explore and invest in developing new neutron sources for the long term; and
  4. Create a new, national governance and management framework for these activities.

The full discussion paper is available below.

Official release of the consultation draft of the national neutron strategy (prepared by TVB Associates)

Report on the Roundtable “Toward a national neutron strategy”

TVB Associates was pleased to have a strategic role supporting the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) working group and CIFAR to hold a national roundtable event entitled, “Towards a National Neutron Strategy.”

Author: Daniel Banks (TVB Associates) and Anne Ballantyne (Fedoruk Centre)
Originally published: Fedoruk Centre (Jan 20, 2021)
Summary of the roundtable by CIFAR (March 17, 2021)

The Canadian neutron beam community is aligning around an emerging strategy to rebuild Canadian capacity for materials research and development with neutron beams.

On December 15 and 16, 2020, leading scientists from across Canada gathered virtually to shape this “national neutron strategy” at a roundtable organized by the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) and CIFAR, with support from the European Spallation Source and the Fedoruk Centre.

The roundtable was a culmination of extensive consultation since 2015, when it became clear that Canada’s only neutron source, the NRU reactor, would close permanently in 2018, jeopardizing the future for research with neutron beams by Canadians. Ideas and feedback were invited on key elements of the strategy, including the needed infrastructure and associated programs, domestic and foreign, spanning the near-term to the long-term.

Neutron beams are irreplaceable tools to generate knowledge and advance materials for 21st century challenges such as ensuring a clean and sustainable environment, and protecting the health and safety of our communities. (See

The national neutron strategy encompasses infrastructure and a governance framework enabling Canadians to address these challenges with world-class tools. Roundtable participants were optimistic about prospects for partnership with foreign neutron facilities, for developing the neutron beam lab at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor, and for exploring our options for neutron sources, each of which are elements of the strategy.

The meeting confirmed that there is broad support for the proposed national neutron strategy and specifically for the creation of a national coordinating organization, Neutrons Canada, which would be charged with governing and managing the strategy’s major activities as a coherent program.

Official report from the roundtable on a national neutron strategy (prepared by TVB Associates)

Strategic planning for major research facilities and initiatives

Do you want to ensure maximum returns on large public investments in research?
Improving governance through strategic planning can offer you a boost in performance.

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc.
Originally published: Canadian Science Policy Centre (Jan. 4, 2021)

Good governance is of vital importance for the long-term success and sustainability of large-scale national research facilities and initiatives. This fact was recently underscored by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) through its Major Science Initiatives (MSI) Fund for the 2012–2017 cycle. The CFI promoted the improvement of governance through the implementation of strategic planning processes.

The facilities whose operations were funded through the CFI’s MSI Fund for this period included national research infrastructure such as Compute Canada, the Canadian Light Source, SNOLAB, and the Canadian research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen, as well as some smaller facilities of national significance such as the Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy. Such national research facilities such as these have typically ‘grown up’ in an ad hoc manner over time—and their governance and management structures and approaches to planning have evolved in a similarly ad hoc manner.

As part of promoting the adoption of best practices in governance and management, the CFI’s MSI Fund for 2012–2017 required all recipient facilities to conduct strategic planning processes that focused on looking ahead to the long term and developing actionable strategies. Afterwards, the CFI reported on the positive impacts on the overall performance of the facilities in the group in its 2019 publication, “A report on the advancement of research facilities funded between 2012 and 2017”.

The positive impacts of strategic planning on the governance of national research facilities should come as no surprise to anyone involved in Canada’s research community. Strategic planning helps align all its activities with the mission to support its long-term objectives. One main outcome of strategic planning, the performance measurement framework, keeps all organizational activities aligned with the strategy and alerts management and the Board of Directors when action is needed. Additionally, the process of developing a strategic plan frequently leads to the identification of areas for strategic and operational enhancements.

In addition to enabling such improvements in governance, the strategic planning process helps build a community of users and stakeholders around the facility or initiative. The strategic plan can also be used as a key communications piece for government bodies, potential collaborators, and local communities.

Making the Strategic Planning Process Work for You

The strategic planning process often falls to facility managers, senior scientists, and even communications staff—often people who would rather be working in a laboratory, or writing a good news press release. If your facility or initiative has turned to you to help update its strategic plan (the next CFI MSI Fund cycle is fast approaching), don’t look at it as an administrative burden or imposition. Rather, see it as an opportunity for you to maximize your facility’s impact and engage wholeheartedly in the process.

Here are some tips and good practices to consider:

  1. Start by designing an inclusive consultation process. Identify all of your stakeholder groups across Canada. Ask key representatives of these groups to be part of a steering committee to help design the consultative process for the strategic plan. Ensure there is a diversity of perspectives. Identify your internal resources; in particular, ensure the engagement of your executive leadership and Board of Directors. It will also be essential to include your scientific and technical professionals to complement external views.
  2. Get the resources you need. Ensure there is an adequate budget for the consultation and production of the plan. The consultative processes will require a significant investment of personnel time, even if done virtually using inexpensive video conferencing and survey platforms. Ensure everyone understands the time commitment that will be expected of them. Do you have a writer on your team with the skills, experience, and time to produce high-level documents for science funding bodies? (Keep in mind, this challenge is quite different from writing grant applications and most other communications pieces). If the required expertise is not available in-house, you may be able to enlist the help of a consultant for such a project, if you plan ahead and budget sufficient resources.
  3. Position your facility or initiative within the national and global context. Effective strategy in business requires targeting the most appropriate market segment for maximum competitive advantage. Similarly, science facilities and initiatives should choose where they can make the most impact in terms of the global ‘market’ for research. Canada’s science funders are often looking to enhance cooperation across the country to maximize the collective national impact, rather than support overlapping programs that compete to produce similar outcomes. How can you complement and collaborate with similar research programs or capabilities across Canada and around the world to be more effective? What advantages do you have, or can you acquire, to become a world-class facility or initiative capable of making the greatest possible impact?
  4. Allow your scientists to remain engaged in what they do best; leave program management and operational details to professionals in these areas. Consultative engagement with scientists should focus on scientific themes and opportunities for the future. Scientists should also be invited to identify any challenges they are facing, which may include operational matters and problems that are hindering research. Refer solutions to operational problems to the appropriate professionals, rather than bog down the strategy discussion in such details.
  5. Learn from others’ strategic planning experiences. Each facility or initiative is unique, but there are frequently recurring goals. For example, all of the MSI-funded facilities in the 2012–2017 cycle had strategic goals in the following areas: enabling leading-edge science and providing state-of-the-art research capabilities through their infrastructure; reaching a wide community of scientific users; and training highly qualified personnel. Many also had goals related to the following: offering top-quality services; enhancing international reputation; being responsive to the needs of non-academic interests, such as industry, health, and security; enhancing the efficiency of operations; and achieving sustainability. Which of these are strategic for your facility or initiative?
  6. Use your strategic plan to ‘sell’ your facility or initiative. If written well, your strategic plan can be an effective communications piece to be perused by government analysts and other stakeholders seeking to learn about what you do. Don’t miss the chance to include information about your facility’s realized and potential impacts in your strategic plan. Celebrate your past successes, and help others get excited about the cutting-edge work taking place at your facility. If this is done successfully, your strategic plan can be a tool for building widespread support. You can encourage members of your scientific community to share your plan with their home institutions, and even with their MPs, to help others communicate key messages about your facility’s work and impact. Your strategic plan can also be shared to engage the support of your local community and to forge collaborations with your international counterparts.

Designing an effective strategic planning process for an existing facility or initiative is a great way to start improving its governance. With a well-crafted strategic plan in place, the Board of Directors or other oversight body can hold management accountable for follow-up actions. The results should lead to both strategic and operational improvements that increase your facility or initiative’s performance, and ultimately increase returns on the public investment.

National roundtable on strategy to rebuild capacity for materials research with neutron beams to be held in December 2020

TVB Associates is pleased to have a strategic role supporting the Canadian Neutron Initiative (CNI) working group and CIFAR to hold a national roundtable event entitled, “Towards a National Neutron Strategy.”

Image: Neutron beams were vital to explain, and prevent downtime from, leaks at Canada’s fleet of nuclear power reactors. (Photo: Pt. Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station)

Overview of the national neutron strategy