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NRC - remembering 75 years of science.

Over the last 75 years, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) has survived wartime, depression, boom and bust to emerge as the country's leading R&D agency for science and engineering. The transformation of NRC from an eleven-member, unpaid advisory body on agricultural and industrial research to a world-class technical and professional staff of 3,000 across the country mirrors the development of science and technology in Canada.

As an institution, NRC's first few years were fraught with financial and political woes. Ten years elapsed from the appointment of the wartime Honorary Advisory Council in 1916 until Parliament finally approved the purchase of a riverfront property owned by the Edwards Lumber Co. for $525,000. For the next six years NRC's fledgling research staff worked out of converted mill buildings on the site.

By 1928, NRC had its first full-time president, Henry Marshall Tory, a physicist and founder of the University of Alberta. Under Tory's decisive leadership three new divisions of chemistry, physics and biology were created, Canada's first national research journal was established, and planning began on for the 100 Sussex Drive laboratories. On the eve of the Great Depression, there were 598 people working under the auspices of the NRC, although only 105 of them were actually paid employees.

The Great Depression

In 1929 the economy crashed and the next year, Prime Minister Mackenzie King's Liberals were defeated by R.B. Bennet's Conservatives. Tory lost a substantial part of his budget and some of his political support. However, in spite of the Depression, the building at 100 Sussex Drive officially opened on August 10, 1932.

Although sharply restricted by lack of funding to hire trained staff and to furnish them with the research tools they required, Tory managed to obtain the services of some of his former colleagues at the University of Alberta. In 1928, Robert Newton had become director of economic biology and agriculture; by 1932 he was a full-time researcher studying plant and animal diseases as well as grain production and marketing problems. Robert William Boyle, also from the University of Alberta, joined Tory's staff as director of physics and engineering physics in 1929. John parkin, who eventually became director of mechanical engineering in 1936, also began his NRC career in 1929 as Boyle's assistant director in charge of aeronautical engineering research.

Appointed that same year as director of industrial chemistry was G.S. Whitby, a former McGill University professor of organic chemistry. Indicative of the practical, applied nature of all this early research, Whitby's staff discovered ways of putting waste natural gas to commercial use, how to produce active silica and magnesium salts from asbestos tailings, and a way to enhance first women researchers in chemistry, Helen D. Chataway, developed the carbon ink used in the Canadian Book of Remembrance.

Throughout the lean 1930s NRC laid the foundations of science and technological research which were to prove so crucial to Canadian industry in the coming years. In 1939, with the Second World War on the horizon, NRC was the only significant research body in Canada, with 300 staff spending less than $1-million per year. The president of NRC went to war in 1939 as General Andrew McNaughton. In his place, he asked then Prime Minister Mackenzic King to appoint Chalmers Mackenzie, president of the University of Saskatchewan, as acting president.

World War II

For the next five years NRC staff swung into research in support of the war effort. By August, 1940, they had designed and installed a small early-warning radar facility to protect Halifax harbour. The top-secret nature of radar, a British invention, and the neutrality of the United States at the time meant that a wholly Canadian crown corporation had to be created to produce radar sets and optical glass. A similar body called Polymer was set up to research and develop artificial rubber. Throughout the war NRC scientists worked on military projects ranging from gauge-testing for industrial munitions plants to jet propulsion, long-range radar and atomic energy. At war's end, nearly 3,000 NRC employees began to convert to peacetime research, making up for the lack of fundamental research that had been suspended in the national interest for five long years.

After the War

During the post-war years NRC began to focus on the growth and development of a cadre of Canadian-based researchers committed to scientific excellence through pure research. By 1946, an Atomic Energy Division of NRC had been created at Chalk River, Ont., there was a division of medical research, and the chemistry division, under E.W.R. Steacie, had split into fundamental chemistry and chemical engineering. In 1948, NRC recruited a new physicist, Gerhard Herzberg, FCIC, to its ranks and the next year he became director of physics.

To ensure that Canada had the facilities and projects to keep its scientists at home, Steacie designed an innovative Post-Doctoral Fellowship Programme to draw researchers to NRC from around the world. Wildly successful, the PDF programme became a major force in the post-war expansion of science, thrusting Canada into the evolving internationalism of science. By 1950, there were 33 fellows in chemistry and 16 in physics.

The NRC under Steacie

The 1950s were dynamic years for NRC under the presidency of Ned Steacie, chosen to succeed Mackenzie in 1952 after the latter was appointed president of Atomic Energy of Canada -- taking 1,396 NRC employees with him. Under Steacie, new laboratories were added to the Prairie Regional Laboratory in Saskatoon established in 1948 (now the Plant Biotechnology Institute). The Maritime Regional Laboratory (now the Institute of Marine Biosciences) opened in Halifax, and in Ottawa at the Montreal Road Campus were the division of building research (now the Institute for Research in Construction) and the division of applied chemistry (now the Institute for Environmental Chemistry). By 1957, over 2,000 employees, 25% of them researchers, were tackling such topics as metal corrosion, lubricating greases, rot in textiles, moulds and bacteria, fog horns, defence problems, radar, silting in the Fraser River, semi-diesel engines and wind tunnels where one could exceed the speed of sound.

The launch of the first Soviet Sputnik in 1957 shattered Western scientific complcency and the nature of research became a public policyissue. In 1961, to counterbalance its emphasis on pure research, NRC created the inustrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) to provide technical and scientific support to Canadian industry Hundreds of projects and millions of dollars in aid later, IRAP continues to contribute to Canada's science and technology infrastructure.

Steacie's death in 1962 led to the appointment of Bristow Guy Ballard, an electrical engineer, whose wartime experience with newly-developed electronic technology made him the ideal director to shepherd the NRC through a period of great scientific in novation and national prosperity. In 1965, the NRC developed the airplane crash-activated Crash Position indicator which proved itself the same year. During this time NRC scientists also designed and built the first cesium atomic clock. The three currently owned by NRC are so accurate that they lose only three seconds every million years and are the standard against which time is measured world-wide.

Upon Ballard's 1967 departure to become president of Canadian Patents and Developments Ltd., a spin-off from NRC, W.G. Schnieder became president. Schnieder's NRC career began in 1946 as head of the general physical chemistry section and progressed to director of the division of pure chemistry in 1963, after which he was appointed vice-president (scientific). An internationally reknowned chemist, Schmieder presided over an NRC that had come of age. Post-war emphasis on science and research had built up an institution that employed nearly 3,000 staff with a budget of $94.6-million ($418-million in 1990 dollars).

Entering the 1970s

After the boom years of the 1960s, the 1970s brought home to NRC the push and pull of meeting national needs with less money. The oil crisis and rising inflation meant that annual budget increases were eaten up by a declining dollar while the demand rose for NRC to tackle research on alternative energy sources. In cooperation with Energy, Mines and Resources Canada, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and Transport Canada, NRC developed the Energy Programme in 1975. For the next decade, NRC scientists, in what became the energy division in 1981, focussed on solar energy, wind energy and biomass research. However, as the oil crisis subsided, so did the need for the energy division and it was phased out in 1984.

Almost from its inception, NRC had had a programme of assisted research to encourage the development of science and engineering in Canada, particularly at the university level. In 1978, what had become known as the Grants and Fellowships Programme left the auspices of NRC to become the Natiural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). The same year, an equally successful initiative was the approval for the Industrial Materials Institute at Boucherville, PQ, in 1978, the first regional research laboratory to receive government approval since Halifax 30 years earlier.

In 1974, almost 50 years after NRC's first librarian was hired, NRC's library was moved from four locations to one new purpose-built building. At the same time, the National Science Library was combined with the Technical Information Service to create the Canadian Institute for Scientific and Technical Information with computerized information handling systems and room for two million volumes. Besides these central facilities, CISTI also has 14 branches serving NRC staff across the Country.

The NRC in Space

Space was very much a part of the government agenda in the 1970s and NRC, along with several other departments, developed a pattern of government-industry partnership that is still a cornerstone of NRC philosophy. The awarding of space-related contracts to Spar Aerospace Ltd. of Toronto was designed to cultivate a world-class space hardware company that would allow Canada to participate in international space projects. In 1973 NRC became the lead agency for Canadarm, the robotic arm commissioned by NASA for use on the American Space Shuttle. The design and construction contract went to Spar.

Along with reaching the stars, NRC was also involved in watching them. After taking over responsibility for the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the Dominion Radio Observatory from Energy, Mines and Resources Canada in 1969, NRC astronomers began working toward a bigger and better telescope. A decade of cooperation with France's Centre national de recherche scientifique and the University of Hawaii led to the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) project, an international partnership that came into operation on August 6, 1979. From this first large telescope on Mauna Kea island have sprung eight more, including the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope shared between Canada, Britain and the Netherlands for which NRC manages Canada's 25%.

From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, under president Kerwin, the growing importance of science and technology in economic development prompted the creation of new regional facilities for NRC, focused on technologies of industrial importance. These included the Biotechnology Research Institute in Montreal and the ocean engineering facilities of the Institute for Marine Dynamics in St. John's, Nfld. In 1986 the Canadian Institute of Industrial Technology opened its doors in Winnipeg.

In order to keep pace with accelerating developments in the aeronautical field NRC merged components of aeronautics and space science research into the space division. This group brought international attention to NRC through their ongoing work with the Canadarm and the launch of the Canadian Astronaut programme. Like so many of NRC's innovative programmes, this division too has been spun off into an independent entity, the Canadian Space Agency, taking kerwin with it as its new president.

The appointment of Pierre O. perron as Kerwin's successor in 1989 ushered in the latest evolution of NRC. A restructuring of NRC to strengthen and consolidate research activities resulted in the creation of five new institutes focussed on areas of strategic importance. They are: the Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences, the Institute for Environmental Chemistry; the Institute for Information Technologies; the Institute for Microstructural Sciences; and the Institute for National Measurement Standards.

Realigning the research activities of the former divisions of physics, chemistry and electrical engineering was only part of NRC's strategy to increase Canadian research and development and thereby sharpen Canada's international competitiveness. The 1990-1995 Long Range Plan, entitled The Competitive Edge, tok NRC's committment to partnerships with industry and other research organizations one step further. By the year 2000, NRC aims to double the total R&D investment stimulated in Canada by NRC programmes. Based on the record of the last 75 years, NRC will more than meet this challenge.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Chemical Institute of Canada
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Canadian National Research Council
Author:Dorais, Estelle; Kert, Faye
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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