A Role Model for Research Integrity

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle

Dick Bourgeois-Doyle is a Canadian writer, a Canadian Science Publishing columnist and science administrator with an interest in innovation history, research ethics, and gender issues in technology. A three-time recipient of the NRC Canada Outstanding Achievement Award for public awareness of science and other recognitions, he has contributed to science promotion in Canada and abroad.

The former Secretary General of the National Research Council of Canada, Mr. Bourgeois-Doyle’s interests include innovation history, research ethics, and gender issues in technology. Mr. Bourgeois-Doyle has served on a number of national and international bodies, recently as a member of the International Council for Science – Committee on Freedom and Responsibility in the Conduct of Science (ICSU CFRS), the Human, Social and Natural Sciences Sectoral Commission of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, and the Organizing Committee of the (3rd) World Conference on Research Integrity. He also acted as chair of the Universality of Science Thematic Session at the World Science Forum (Jordan) 2017, Chair of the NRC Centennial: 100 Years of Innovation for Canada, and Chair of the Canadian Council on Animal Care (CCAC) Public Affairs and Communications Committee. Before joining NRC in 1987, Mr. Bourgeois-Doyle was Chief of Staff to the Canadian Minister of Science and Technology and Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.

When I began work as an administrator at the National Research Council of Canada in 1987, I felt a bit overwhelmed and even inadequate.

It seemed that all my colleagues had multiple degrees on their office walls, spoke several languages, and moved effortlessly within the milieu of diverse and complex scientific and technical issues. Though I had some experience in policy and communications, I struggled to craft simple briefing notes, memos, and news releases daunted by subject material that jumped day to day and ranged from cancer detection and environmental toxins to superconducting materials and astrophysics.

My skill and comfort with science did not grow overnight, but I remember the day when I recognized a coherence in the disparate disciplines and first felt a degree of ease in my job. This came when I noticed that a common thread running through all of NRC priorities was spun from a fibre of molecular spectroscopy. I found that this thread ran back to the lab and mind of Dr. Gerhard Herzberg.

I also learned that administrators, managers, and scientists throughout NRC felt humble when thinking of Dr. Herzberg, and this too gave me some comfort.

“In a real sense, we’re still running on the fumes of his accomplishments and reputation,” I remember a senior vice-president saying. “You can look at every pocket of spectroscopy at NRC and find far less than six-degrees of separation from his lab.”

This all led me to think that if I could wrap my bureaucrat brain around the workings of spectroscopy and the life of the great man, I might have the basic tools to tackle the issues coming my way at NRC.

I had, in fact, met Dr. Herzberg in the years prior in the context of my life in politics. These encounters took the form of handshakes and cocktail reception exchanges: memorable for me as a brush with a Nobel Laureate, less likely to warrant entry in Dr. Herzberg’s journals and not opportunities for me to learn.  But as an NRC employee, I now had the privilege of accosting him within the veil of my official duties and of probing him directly to understand more about his work.

Through this I started to appreciate the power of atomic and molecular spectroscopy and see how NRC’s expertise had earned it a seat at the adult table in many disciplines. Spectroscopy, I was told, fomented from a portfolio of technique and instrumentation that could reveal the structure of molecules, identify atoms, and empower these varied research fields. I imagined the process as energizing atoms until they spouted varying rainbows of light that were in turn captured on photographic plates for identification and analysis. For the most part, this imperfect image served me well for the purpose of my work, but it did not shed light on the nucleus of Dr. Herzberg’s greatness.

My mind might have been searching for some defining singular discovery or invention in his work. Molecular spectroscopy as a whole seemed a formless concept and hard to articulate as a credential for eminence to those outside the world of science.

I first started to grasp the scope of that greatness on a trip to Ohio in 1990.  Because of my known interest in the man, NRC asked me to represent the organization at an event in Dayton, home of the Wright Brothers, Charles F. Kettering, and other iconic inventors. The city’s Engineering and Science Hall of Fame had selected Dr. Herzberg as that year’s honoree, but he was unable to attend. I believe the octogenarian researcher had broken his ankle hiking in the Alps.

I spoke only briefly.  Dr. Herzberg’s colleague Izabel Dabrowski filled the role of keynote at the induction dinner and carried the charge of speaking on her mentor’s behalf. But when Izabel reached the podium, she announced that her remarks would not share Dr. Herzberg’s message and would instead tell the audience “What Dr. Herzberg would not say if he was here.”

Izabel told the gathering that her boss would not hesitate to share scientific mistakes he made throughout his career seeing them as humorous and just part of the research process. But she explained that as a self-effacing person, Dr. Herzberg would focus on the technical features of his science and would not mention his association with monumental 20th century personalities such as Max Born and James Franck nor would he tell of how many other Nobel Laureates and leading researchers he had inspired and trained at his NRC Ottawa labs.

Without treading too far into the science, Izabel also gave an overview of the innovations that had been made possible by Dr. Herzberg’s insights and work, listing advances in medical science, environmental protection, telecommunications, and astronomy. She also cited many honours and awards that would not be uttered by Dr. Herzberg at any such occasion.

Her speech also noted some of the challenges of his early life that are now well documented in other fora: the loss of his father, a long separation from his mother, financial hardships, struggles to pursue his education, and the persecution under the Nazis that prompted him and his late wife Luise to flee Germany in the 1930s and find refuge in Canada.

Izabel recounted these features of Dr. Herzberg’s life to frame something else he would not have mentioned were he speaking at the event. This was his active role in the promotion of human rights and peace and specifically his efforts on behalf of the Soviet dissident and physicist Andrei Sakharov.

She concluded by saying that Dr. Herzberg would also have failed to mention that he was a passionate opera lover and very accomplished amateur singer in his own right. As I flew back to Ottawa, I carried a more robust appreciation for the man and his personality which would revisit me less than a decade later when asked to help organize memorials. They would include an opera performance at the National Arts Centre.

But because the Dayton proceedings did not dwell on the details of his science, I did not return to my duties with a much greater understanding of Dr. Herzberg’s research nor any new ways of articulating it for others. This did not come my way until years later and after Dr. Herzberg’s passing, when tributes were made, and retrospectives were written. 

The best description to my mind, however, sat in the middle of a profile by science writer Jake Berkowitz. The 2005 piece ran in the Ottawa Citizen and sought to inform the locals of an upcoming opportunity to visit Dr. Herzberg’s office in the NRC national laboratories building on Sussex Drive.  Jake’s article not only laid out the major elements of Dr. Herzberg’s personal life elegantly, but it defined his scientific achievements in a specific and accessible way.  It talked of those rainbows of light as leaving a “light fingerprint” of lines that only had meaning with complex mathematical analysis and painstaking care in the capture and assessment. It spoke of the late scientist’s exemplary work on elusive subjects like free radicals and other challenging projects.      

But though Dr. Herzberg was properly dubbed “the Einstein of Canadian science” given his influence which ran from the atom to the cosmos, those close to him would say that he was “no Einstein” in the sense of achievement founded upon a discrete insight or brilliant flash.  

It was not any singular success, rather it was the sum of that great care and a methodical, thoughtful persistence that stretched over decades, over a life, and over Dr. Herzberg’s own spectrum of research interests that earned him the Nobel Prize and status as arguably Canada’s greatest scientific figure. 

Dr. Herzberg’s life thus warrants study and reflection because of the role model of integrity and dedication it embodies.

I only came to fully appreciate this in the latter stages of my NRC career which focused on science ethics and more recently in my capacity with the European Path2Integrity project. The latter aspires to inform high school students and undergraduates as well as professionals of the elements of quality science and the importance of high standards in science. The essence of this kind of integrity in research is a dedication to detail and persistent adherence to professional requirements: open record keeping, transparency, vigorous testing and challenging of results, and the quest for truth.

The P2I teams sees these requirements as meriting attention in the education system on a par with the mechanics of physics, chemistry, biology, and other subjects. In trying to engage students on these issues, the P2I teachers and researchers have learned that the subject of research integrity has its greatest appeal not because of aspirations for scientific or technical careers, but rather because of the implications for society and for public well being.

In an age of formidable health, environmental, and economic trials magnified by the confusing paradigm of hyper social media and fake news, students, like many of the rest of us, are keen to understand how to identify quality, well-founded knowledge. The answer lies in Dr. Herzberg’s example.

It is for this reason that I am passionate about the 50th anniversary of his Nobel Prize, seeing it as an opportunity to promote greater awareness of a powerful and inspiring role model for integrity, dedication, and humble persistence and to motivate others with the story of what impact one can have through this approach to science and life.

Absorbing Dr. Herzberg’s story can thus make one feel a little less intimidated by the issues of the day, less likely to feel overwhelmed and inadequate, more likely to see a path to a better future.