The Politics of Publicly Funded Scientific Research

By: Dimitry Zakharov

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Gerhard Herzberg worked for the National Research Council for 30 years, and served as its most prominent scientist during his tenure there. His views on scientific research were shared by the NRC’s president, E.W.R. Stacie, whose outlook reflected the philosophy of the people who created and shaped the NRC as a favorable environment for fundamental, cutting-edge research. Besides Herzberg, numerous future Nobel Prize winning scientists passed through its halls as researchers or post-doctoral fellows, all of them pursuing the common goal of producing world class chemistry and physics research.

 The NRC and E.W.R. Steacie

Parliament established the National Research Council in 1916 with the passage of the National Research Act. This decision followed a British initiative to set up national research centers throughout the Commonwealth. At the time — 1914 — Great Britain recognized that the country did not have enough qualified researchers who could support the war effort. Indeed, Britain still depended on materials and equipment from Germany until the very start of World War I.[i]

Robert L. Borden, M.P. (Halifax, N.S.), Leader of the Conservative Party, 1901. Image copyright of William James Topley, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

Enacted by Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Conservative government, the National Research Act aimed to establish an institution that would support Canada’s scientific and industrial research. The Council consisted of a president, division directors for biology, physics, and chemistry, research scientists and visiting post-doctoral fellows. After World War II, the government passed an Order in Council creating an “Advisory Panel on Scientific Policy” that would provide a line of communication between the NRC and the government. The Advisory Panel included the NRC president as an ex officio member, and a sub-committee made up of the heads of Canada’s Crown agencies.[ii]

In theory, this Advisory Panel reported to the Privy Council’s Committee on Scientific and Industrial Research. In practice, the panel, under the leadership of figures like Steacie and another NRC president, C. J. Mackenzie, exercised more control over the direction of research and funding than the Privy Council. However, this arrangement was not adversarial and the panel (i.e., the NRC’s president) had easy access to cabinet ministers and other politicians. Herzberg was a proponent of the structure and a supporter of Steacie. He claimed in several speeches that this system shielded scientific research from bureaucratic interference and represented a major reason for the emergence of Canada as a scientific powerhouse during the 1950s and 1960s.

However, the Advisory Panel structure became a point of controversy in the 1960s, thanks to the recommendations of a pair of Royal Commissions: the 1963 Glassco Commission[iii] and the 1970 Lamontagne Commission.[iv] The report of the Glassco commission claimed the Advisory Panel system was broken, and that the NRC, under Steacie’s leadership, failed to uphold its mandate to also support applied and industrial research. After Steacie died in 1962, the government extensively restructured the NRC. In 1966, the government dissolved the Advisory Panel and replaced it with the Science Secretariat of the Privy Council. This shift gave the government greater control over the NRC.

Then, in 1970, the Lamontagne Report concluded that the NRC operated according to what it dubbed the “Steacie myth” during the “golden years” of NRC research in the 1950s and 1960s. By “Steacie myth,” the commission was referring to a concern that the NRC had sidelined and under-invested in applied and commercial research.

The Lamontagne Commission also concluded there was a need for a more coherent science policy in Canada — another long-standing criticism which both Herzberg and Steacie had publicly opposed. Herzberg argued that a science policy would spell doom for science. How, he wondered, could anything new be discovered or invented if research had to adhere to a set of rules guiding what should be studied? Indeed, the NRC system had worked for decades because its leaders had a shared understanding of the importance of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Steacie and Herzberg both understood this kind of free inquiry could not be done within bureaucratic constraints. Even during the escalation of the Cold War, when science and scientific achievements were deemed to be a matter of state security, the NRC and its leadership managed to preserve and negotiate independence for basic research, and for its scientists like Herzberg.

Steacie was born on Christmas day in 1900 in Montreal. At 16, he was already attending science lectures at McGill. Steacie’s father died during the WWI and at the age 19, he joined Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston to follow his father’s military footsteps. But his military career, although promising, only lasted a year. Steacie returned to McGill to study physical chemistry.

There, he met physicist Otto Maass, who took him under his wing and prepared him to be an outstanding future scientist. Steacie completed an engineering bachelor’s degree in 1923 with first-class honors. Influenced by Maass and interested in physical chemistry, Steacie stayed on at McGill to complete both his master’s and doctoral degrees by 1926.

In 1934, after working at McGill as a lecturer, Steacie was awarded a scholarship by the Royal Society of Canada and spent a year in Europe as a post-doctoral fellow, working with chemists Karl-Friedrich Bonhoeffer in Frankfurt and A. J. Allmand in London. Coincidentally, Herzberg knew both these scientists from his early career. He and Bonhoeffer were good friends from his time at Gottingen University. Herzberg had met Allmand at a conference in London. Interestingly, Allmand recommended that Herzberg take on John W.T. Spinks — who eventually sponsored Herzberg to come to the University of Saskatchewan — as a post-doctoral fellow in Darmstadt.

“E.W.R. Steacie Receives Medal June 4, 1953.” The National Research Council of Canada.

Even before either Steacie or Herzberg were at the NRC, both were travelling in the same academic circles. The experience of working in Europe was incredibly important for Steacie, and also for the future of the NRC under his presidency. In Europe, he witnessed what a laboratory, led by a world class scientist and staffed with similarly brilliant individuals, could achieve. Herzberg, too, was a product of the European system, and fondly remembered his time as a post-doctoral fellow at Gottingen, where he got to know or work with several current and future Nobel Laureates.  

Once back in Canada, Steacie returned to McGill as a professor working on reaction kinetics and the problem of free radicals (their existence was only hypothesized at the time). In 1939, G. S. Whitby, the head of the chemistry division, retired and Steacie was selected to replace him. Whitby, a former McGill professor, gave Steacie a glowing assessment during the selection process: “Pro: clever, highly competent, hard working, upstanding, a first-class lecturer and speaker. Con: Not interested in industrial chemistry. Wholly devoted to making a name for himself by academic research on some of the more recent theoretical aspects of physical chemistry.”[v]

Steacie’s biographer, Catherine King, notes that Steacie himself would have been pleased with this assessment: a scientist’s scientist indifferent to politics or profits. However, when Steacie joined the NRC, he quickly had to learn how to navigate the political realm. Only a few years after accepting the position, rumours of a coming war in Europe reached Canada. On his second week in his new position, Steacie was informed that all activities in the chemistry division would be diverted towards the utilization of Canada’s natural resources and improvements in manufacturing as part of the war effort.[vi] Reportedly, Steacie still tried to organize his division in such a way as to provide his scientists with as much time as possible to work on their own research.

With the start of the war, the government re-organized the NRC to be wholly focused on providing assistance to the Commonwealth war effort. This change in mandate led to an explosion of bureaucratic responsibilities for Steacie, with countless committee meetings and paperwork. King describes how stress and overwork was prevalent at the NRC during the war years. The non-stop activity and low morale led to many practical and necessary decisions to cut paperwork, eliminate regulatory roadblocks, and ignore various procedures. These changes provided Steacie with an important learning experience, as various scientific committees made no effort to oppose these procedural changes.[vii] In the uncertainty of the war, quick decisions had to be made.

After the war, the NRC returned normal operating processes, but with one important change; the creation of the Advisory Panel on Scientific Research first chaired by C. J. Mackenzie. In 1948, Herzberg joined the NRC and promoted to head the physics division the next year. In 1950, Steacie was promoted from director of chemistry to vice-president of the NRC; two years later, he moved up to become president. The much lauded “golden years” followed and the legacy of the “Steacie myth” was born. Sadly, 10 years into his presidency, Steacie died after a long battle with cancer.

His love of pure science and his preference for running the NRC as a university-style laboratory was exactly what scientists like Herzberg wanted. Under Steacie’s leadership, the NRC accomplished monumental projects, like building the Chalk River Laboratories, which housed Canada’s first experimental nuclear reactors. Likewise, Steacie became an internationally known figure with many awards and honors.

Historian Donald Phillipson also argues that the claims made by both the Glassco and Lamontagne commissions — that Steacie’s had ignored and under-funded applied and industrial research — were simply not correct.[viii] The Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP), for example, was offered up as a point of criticism against Steacie. Started in 1962, IRAP sought to provide direct funding to industries performing in-house research. While this program may have only been created towards the end of Steacie’s presidency, Phillipson points out that the NRC’s various laboratories participated in a number of industrial and applied research areas, including architecture, aeronautics, and electrical engineering.[ix] The NRC, therefore, managed to balance its research priorities and adhere to its initial 1916 mandate.


Steacie’s legacy of excellence in Canadian research was only possible because he himself gave up on his own scientific ambitions to serve as the NRC’s top administrator. In Herzberg’s philosophy of scientific research, bureaucracy was absent. But that was an idealized vision; every organization requires some form of bureaucracy. To insulate scientists from bureaucratic interference, Steacie had to become a bureaucrat who would shield his researchers. Herzberg, indifferent to the world beyond his lab, disliked the politics of science and would have never sought to climb to the top of the NRC, as Steacie had. Yet it was equally important for him to work with scientists who were skilled bureaucrats, willing to defend other scientists and communicate the importance of their research to politician and the public beyond.

Gerhard Herzberg at NRC.
“Gerhard Herzberg on steps of NRC, 100 Sussex Drive, February 1985” Dr. Gerhard Herzberg Fond, The National Research Council of Canada.

[i] Christine King, E. W. R. Steacie and Science in Canada, (Toronto: University Press, 1989): 45.

[ii] Donald J. C. Phillipson, “The National Research Council of Canada: Its Historiography, Its Chronology, Its Bibliography,” Canadian Journal of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine 15 No. 2 (1991).; during Steacie’s time as president the Advisory Panel sub-committee included the heads of the Defence Research Board and the Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.

[iii] The Royal Commission on Government Organization, Volume 4: Scientific Research and Development, J. Grant Glassco, Ottawa: The Queen’s Printer, 1963. Herein referred to as the Glassco Report.

[iv] A Science Policy for Canada. Report of the Senate Special Committee on Science Policy (Ottawa, 1970); Herein referred to as the Lamontagne Report.

[v] Christine King, E. W. R. Steacie and Science in Canada, (Toronto: University Press, 1989): 41.

[vi] King, E. W. R. Steacie, 68.

[vii] King, E. W. R. Steacie, 65-66.

[viii] Donald J. C. Phillipson, “The Steacie Myth and the Institutions of Industrial Research,” Journal of the History of Canadian Science, Technology, and Medicine 7 No. 3 (1983): 118.

[ix] Phillipson, “The Steacie Myth”, 119.