Over the past two years, Defence Research and Development Canada has seen considerable change to its budget, personnel and programs. Recent investments to its infrastructure and a flurry of requests to industry for information and proposals, however, point to an organization with a new focus. Marc Fortin, assistant deputy minister for science and technology with National Defence, spoke with editor Chris Thatcher about priorities and expanded partnerships.

Put the recent cuts into context: How much has the organization had to change?

A lot of the context is clearly the changing tempo of operations. Canada has been in Afghanistan for about 10 years and DRDC was asked to change our work to focus more on the immediate – the questions and pressures for which the Canadian Forces needed answers. In those 10 years there has also been fantastic advances in science and technology. New technologies have appeared on the market, either as threats for which we have to prepare the Canadian Forces or new technologies that provide new capabilities to the CF. Because of the pressures of the last 10 years, we spent more of our effort answering the immediate, but we need to maintain a balance with the long-term work and new technologies. We’ve also seen operations that are more complex simply because of the whole-of-government approach where we need to take into account other departments, other factors, other players. The complexity of the environment has increased. This is a time where we need more S&T than ever before.

Do we need the same S&T we used to do 10-20 years ago? No. Our programs need to be very dynamic. We have to keep taking signals from the outside in terms of S&T, signals from the inside in terms of requirements, and continually tweak our programs. For example, in the context of what the government was asking us to do, which is to be smaller, we have assessed every portfolio in DRDC. And in some areas we had no choice but to conclude that the technology area was more mature and there was enough S&T capacity in Canada amongst our partners to meet the Forces requirements. Take conventional radars: there are significant industrial partners that can provide radar S&T and platforms. We need to adjust our expertise to be more focused on cutting edge new advances in radar technology. It is the same with UAVs: there are now many suppliers of unmanned systems as a platform. We need to scale back our work and refocus it on signal integration, on sensors. So as industrial capability improves, we need to continually shift our programs.

Of course, the Deficit Reduction Action Plan (DRAP) has put pressure on us to sharpen our pencils. It is not entirely a bad thing. It was a time for us to take a hard look at our programs. We also needed to take stock of government policy, the COTS and MOTS (commercial and military off-the-shelf) policies, and think carefully about our role in 2013. We are S&T advisors. Given that there has been a significant increase in capacity outside the walls of DND and DRDC, how do we become a knowledge integrator, tapping into the knowledge providers all around us. How do we increase the resilience of our Canadian S&T ecosystem? Our role is not to do all the science that DND requires; our role is to be a provider of knowledge and to focus our S&T efforts in areas that are strategic, sensitive, classified, where there is no other provider because the market is too small or there is no Canadian capacity. That exercise of reviewing our portfolio was helpful.

We are also looking at how we operate. Can we be more efficient in how we conduct our business and make sure we invest all we can in our core mission? The DRAP exercise has forced us to think about who and where our partners are. We are having fantastic discussions with our Five Eyes partners – U.K., U.S., Australia and New Zealand – which are all facing similar challenges. And we’re having very constructive discussions on mutual reliance to be smarter as a group of organizations – perhaps the Australians are better at something than we are, so we will work with them and not replicate their efforts and vise versa. Domestically, we’re developing new tools to work with universities and industry to make it easier to mitigate some of the barriers that we have had in the past. S&T knowledge is inherently a very networked kind of business. Given the complexity of the challenges and the complexity of the S&T content of today’s platforms, we need to be better at creating and operating in those networks of S&T knowledge than ever before.

New partnerships were emphasized in DRDC’s 2006 S&T strategy. Has DRAP and fiscal restraint forced you to place a greater priority on them?

DRAP is certainly an incentive, but it is not an incentive that is exclusive to defence. The entire federal S&T system is wrestling with ways of being more nimble, more agile, working with partners outside the federal family. I am co-chair of the federal S&T integration board, which brings together 13 different departments and agencies that have S&T as one of their core mandates, and we are collectively looking at ways of addressing those barriers. For example, DRDC has broken new ground with CIHR (Canadian Institute for Health Research), which has a long track record of working with universities. So instead of creating new instruments and mechanisms, we’ve simply partnered with CIHR to have access to academic expertise in areas that are priorities for Defence.

Does the convergence of technology – biotech, robotics, nanotech, etc – drive you to look across whatever barriers might exist between sectors and begin to pool resources and expertise?

That’s the beauty of DRDC. We are the integrator for DND/CF. We collect the knowledge that is sitting outside and translate it or integrate it in a way that it makes sense. We’re working with Public Safety Canada, which also requires S&T advise, and sometimes there is a fair amount of overlap or convergence in terms of problems. A nuclear incident in Kandahar is a CF problem, a nuclear incident in Calgary is a Public Safety issue, yet they rely on the same experts and knowledge pool. We need protection against pathogens in foreign operations, we need protection against influenza in Canada, so the technologies again are overlapping.

At a recent conference you mentioned the need to look for “new knowledge.” Where are you finding it?

We have no choice but to look for new knowledge to be at the cutting edge. We continue to send our scientists to work with allies or to attend scientific conferences where the latest developments are discussed. That is our DNA, so to speak. And that is the value we bring to DND. We are the “no surprise” insurance policy for DND to understand how new threats are developing or how new technologies are emerging. We need to insure we continue to be connected with the best sources of knowledge. And that requires networking like never before, sometimes in non-traditional areas.

Given the reassessment of programs that is underway, are you changing DRDC’s mission critical priorities?

We are going to see a few things happen. The first will be in the coming year with the release of a renewed defence and security S&T strategy. What you are going to see in that strategy, however, is less specificity in terms of areas of investment for two reasons: first, we have to be more dynamic, more agile in responding to new technologies and new threats, which are happening faster than ever, so a five-year list would be obsolete by year 2 or 3; and second, we need to focus on the strategic, the sensitive, the classified, the unique research and these are not topics we can broadcast.

How are your programs tied to what the army, navy and air force might require?

We’re putting in place the processes to make sure that we are aligned with our clients. We are embedding staff in the various environments, including CJOC (Canadian Joint Operations Command) such that day-to-day our staff hear the issues and the challenges those environments face. Our S&T program, which in the past resided in various research centres, is going to be fully integrated and much more forward looking into the environments.

Is the intent to focus on those technologies that do not yet have market strength in industry?

Our balance of investment – short-term and long-term – is very much environment-dependent and context-dependent in terms of geopolitical events. Our focus for the navy, which has a large, long-term recapitalization program, might be different than our approach for the air force or the CJOC, which has a more operational and short-term focus. We have to take cues from what is happening with the environments and adjust.

Advances in technology over the last five years have been phenomenal. Just think of cyber. The threat has evolved significantly. The CF rely on electronic networks to a much greater extent than they used to. How do we help them operate in those environments? So we are creating partnerships that will allow us to be nimble because taking new scientists on board and developing them takes a fair amount of time; some of the threats are more immediate, so the ability to network internationally and nationally is critical to be able to respond in a timely fashion.

How are you tied into the foresight communities within the environments and Chief of Force Development?

I’d like to think that we’re at the cutting edge. In fact, DRDC scientists are pushing the boundaries of scenario development methodologies for the warfare centre, for example. We do a lot of work with the Chief of Force Development and will be launching new projects using new methodologies that we’ve recently developed in those areas. It’s critical that CFD has access to our experts because they are connected with our allies who are at the cutting edge of their own specific disciplines; as CFD develops the force of the future, he can shape it according to the future environment that our experts are connected to. Canada invests well in S&T but we are still a modest player relative to some of our allies. However, they are feeling economic pressures and enthusiastically working with us. We have developed areas where Canada is a leader, and the reciprocity we get is fantastic.

Within the context of the human terrain work, are you working with outside expertise that you would not have interacted with before? And is the human dimension still an area of focus or has that shifted?

We are tapping into the social sciences communities in Canadian universities, and these were not traditional partners in the past. The nature of the conflict in Afghanistan required us to tap into that expertise pool.

People are central to the CF, but personnel are increasingly interfacing with fairly complex platforms and we have a role to play in understanding how humans interact with machines or platforms and how machines can be better shaped to interface with humans. Things like signal fusion and creating interface displays that will allow the operator to be more efficient by accessing the information he or she needs for making a decision.

You mentioned developing new tools to mitigate some of the barriers with industry. Can you elaborate on them?

We have embarked on a series of discussions with other government departments as well as with industry to find new ways of working together. The partnership we’re building with CIHR is progress in working with the academic community. We need to develop tools to work with the industrial community. Those discussion are in progress and we’ll have more to talk about in the coming year.

Do you have a mandate to support innovation within the industrial sector?

We are the catalysts. We have to be knowledgeable about what other organizations can offer in terms of support funding, such that we can help direct companies to the right places. They come with technologies at very different stages of maturity, from the idea stage – a diagram on a piece of paper – all the way to something that is essentially ready for early adoption by government. Industry has in the past been mesmerized by the complexity of government programs and the number of doors they need to knock on to be able to access government. We need to help them. We have the experts who understand CF requirements because we are embedded in their environments. And we have a long history of interaction with Canadian companies, which we need to continue to expand.

The recent aerospace review by David Emerson emphasized that the sector turns on innovation and, among its recommendations, suggested support for large-scale technology demonstrations. DRDC has been involved in TDs to an extent. Do you see that becoming a larger role?

A lot of people would like to demonstrate technologies for the Canadian Forces. We don’t have unlimited resources to support the demonstration of technology by anyone who knocks on our door. But we have to help the CF sift through what might be interesting to answer their requirements, and technology demonstration is one part of the chain. We also have to invest in later horizons to make sure that there is a technology pipeline for the longer-term.

It’s not one program, in my view, that will answer the innovation challenge that Canada is facing. It is ensuring that across the innovation chain we have a robust, healthy, dynamic innovation process. We have to look at the holistic chain and ensure that our balance of interventions is appropriate. This is why we are working with other federal departments; they are currently making investments in one link or another. We need to integrate all those investments, all of those programs in a way that ensures a robust, resilient, active dynamic system to answer CF/DND requirements.

Lastly, is there a key technology challenge you see for the future?

Information is huge. The way we process data and translate that into information that is actionable for CF operations is a huge, huge challenge. There are enormous challenges in gathering that information, which is sometimes sitting in open sources, waiting to be tapped into, and making it useful for an operation. The Internet opened up information sources in an extraordinary way but we still have a lot of work to do to tap into it.