Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Crisis Ensures NRC's 100th Birthday Will Be Memorable

The entrance to the historic Plaskett Telescope at the NRC's Dominion Astrophysical Observatory. Chris Gainor photo.

The National Research Council of Canada will turn 100 on June 6.

Established during World War I, the NRC started off enlisting Canada's researchers in the war effort, but soon the emphasis changed to a mixture of pure scientific research and dealing with various social and economic challenges faced by Canadians.

Over the years, NRC researchers have made important contributions to a whole variety of scientific pursuits, including medicine, nuclear physics, astronomy, aviation, agriculture and engineering, to name just a few. NRC scientists have made important scientific discoveries, and created a number of devices and processes that make our lives better and our economy stronger.

The NRC was the home of much of Canada's space program until the Canadian Space Agency commenced operations in 1989.

Today the NRC has more than 4,000 employees in 50 research facilities in every part of Canada. Of special interest to me are NRC's astronomical facilities, which are grouped in Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics. These facilities include the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO), just down the road from my home in Victoria, B.C.

It is well known that the past decade under Stephen Harper's Conservatives was not a good one for science in Canada. All scientists in federal employ were muzzled. At NRC, tight money was the order of the day, along with an emphasis on directing research to immediate, short term gains for Canadian business.

In 2010, the Harper government appointed John McDougall as president of NRC. McDougall had previously headed the Alberta Research Council, where he had implemented a similar emphasis on applied research.

Morale fell at NRC during the Harper years. But most of the problems at NRC did not get public attention. One exception was the NRC's decision in 2013 to close down the Centre of the Universe public outreach centre at the DAO, which I have written about in some detail in this blog.

Since the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau took office last fall after winning the October federal election, many initiatives of the Harper government have been overturned, one of the first being the gag order affecting federal scientists. But what about the NRC?

As reported this week by Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen, McDougall went on a personal leave in March for an indefinite period of time.

Last week, the new acting president of NRC, Maria Aubrey, announced that a major reorganization of NRC that was slated to take effect April 1 has been postponed indefinitely. Aubrey's announcement made it clear that the postponement is necessary to bring NRC into line with the new government's priorities.

Beyond these two short announcements, the government's plans for NRC are shrouded in secrecy. The two cabinet members responsible for NRC, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains and Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, aren't answering reporters' questions.

We can hope that the shape of the Trudeau government's plans for the NRC will emerge soon, and that those plans will restore the strengths of the NRC.

Canada has benefitted greatly from NRC's applied research work. But this important work must also be balanced with basic research that answers fundamental questions of science and leads us to those coveted advances in applied science. It's time to restore balance - and financial support - to NRC. If that happens, NRC can move forward into a second century that builds on the achievements of its first century.

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