Reorganizing the federal government’s research ecosystem – 60-year-old report still resonates
February 7, 2024
Paul Dufour is Senior Fellow, Institute for Science, Society and Policy, University of Ottawa
More than 60 years ago, an influential report was in the making by war-time science adviser and engineer, C. J. (Jack) Mackenzie. As the National Research Council’s president, he had been instrumental in advising the government on its military and nuclear research efforts and collaborating with his allied counterparts. Under Mackenzie, the NRC was reorganized to provide a stronger foundation to support basic science and industry development.
In 1963, Mackenzie was appointed special advisor by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to provide counsel on the organization of government scientific activities. Mackenzie wrote an informal progress report on January 28, 1964, to the PM, making several recommendations. They were:
1. A Central Scientific Bureau or Secretariat to be established in the PM’s office to assemble, digest and analyze all information concerning the government’s S&T activities and their inter-relations with university, industry, and provincial scientific establishments.
2. A National Committee on Scientific Policy (NCSP) to assess the government scientific activities for the purpose of:
- forming judgments on the adequacy of support for research and how well it’s balanced within universities, industry and federal and provincial institutions;
- prioritizing broad areas of research and determining which should be given the most support in the interest of the country and economic prosperity;
- providing an annual report to the PM. Mackenzie also suggested key studies that the proposed NCSP should undertake, including the reappraisal of the roles for university, private sector, and federal and provincial research establishments.
3. Finally, he argued that consideration should be given to establishing a reinvigorated federal panel on S&T, composed of deputy ministers and heads of scientific agencies feeding into the NCSP.
If these sound familiar, they should. Some of the recommendations came to pass including the creation of a Science Secretariat in the government and, later, a public think tank in the name of the Science Council of Canada (1966-1992).
Much experimentation with the country’s STI ecosystem has occurred since then – including the establishment of a Ministry of State for Science and Technology, various science and innovation reviews, several advisory S&T structures and, more recently, Canada even had a Minister for Science (only the second female ever in that post) until it was abolished in 2019.
Mackenzie report still resonates today
The Mackenzie report resonates still today in part within the mandate of the Chief Science Advisor to the Trudeau government, along with the release in 2023 of a commissioned report led by Frédéric Bouchard of the Université de Montréal to reassess the governance of the federally supported research ecosystem (borrowing somewhat from a previous expert panel led by David Naylor in 2017 that examined the federal fundamental science support system).
Further, the now delayed Canadian Innovation Corporation (CIC) which would incorporate parts of the NRC’s technology delivery mandate (including by transferring the Industrial Research Assistance program to the CIC) make it clear that the government has always seen the evolution of the NRC as a challenge – and part of a larger canvas that needs to be reimagined on how the federal government supports the sciences, innovation and research, not to mention how this links to a wider pan-Canadian strategy for the knowledge base in this country (which the country last had in 1987).
Indeed, as we have seen such experiments before, one would hope that the new leadership in the NRC and elsewhere within the federal government will be ready to inspire our next generation who can help shape the country’s ever-expanding knowledge tapestry.
Ultimately, what the 1964 Mackenzie report serves to remind us is that getting the right people together with the right receptor at the right time with the right conviction can be more critical to any success than ideal organization charts, vision-less policy and weak leadership.
Mackenzie said it well: It seems to me the gut issue of broad national policy for science is political and economic, not scientific. Canada’s future will depend on how well a few, at least, of our political leaders and senior public service officials realize the importance of science and develop a real understanding of what science is all about, what the essential conditions are for first-class scientific output, and how the authoritative voice of experience science can best be presented – and really listened to – in the deliberations of government.
And the beat goes on . . .