Iain Stewart selected to lead assessment of National Research Council

Mark Henderson
August 18, 2016

Align with new Innovation Agenda

Veteran S&T bureaucrat Iain Stewart has been named the National Research Council's 14th president — an appointment that has elicited polarized reaction from members of Canada's research and research policy communities. In an informal survey by RE$EARCH MONEY of innovation analysts and policy makers, Stewart's appointment was viewed as excellent by some and with caution by others, primarily due to his lack of a research or hard science background.

Stewart — currently associate secretary at the Treasury Board Secretariat — was appointed last month to replace acting NRC president Maria Aubrey, who took up the helm following the abrupt departure of John McDougall on March 21 for unspecified personal reasons. Stewart assumes his new duties August 24 for a two-year term at a salary range of $221,300 to $260,300.

The official July 28 announcement by Science minister Kirsty Duncan stated that Stewart was being tasked "to lead the organization in an assessment of how it can continue to support science excellence, business innovation and key technology clusters as part of the Government of Canada's Innovation Agenda". No mention was made of the future prospects of the NRC's radical transformation into a research and technology organization — a process that was suspended when a planned expansion of the NRC executive suite from three to five VPs was put on indefinite hold.

That transformation saw a strong shift towards business support and a lessening of fundamental science. It also resulted in the elimination of distinct NRC institutes and a foresight exercise that identified seven challenge areas and emerging cross-cutting technology themes deemed critical to Canada's future. The activities of at least one of those institutes – the Institute for Biodiagnostics in Winnipeg – was discontinued completely (R$, May 1/12) and there were unspecified plans to convert the Edmonton-based National Institute of Nanotechnology into an incubator for emerging technologies.

On the same day that the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development announced Stewart's appointment, outgoing president John McDougall issued a letter formally announcing his retirement to focus on "family, friends and personal interests".

"As we celebrate our (NRC's) centennial, I have concluded that there is no better time for me to retire from the public service," stated McDougall, who was appointed president in 2010 and had his term extended last year for another three years to April 18/18 (R$, July 29/15). "The last few years have seen immense changes … All this makes the role of NRC more important than ever as the national organization with the scale and scope to consider, propose, coalesce and partner to build new innovative approaches for existing industries and to identify and stimulate the development of brand new industries and value chains."

Unknown outside of policy circles

Stewart is well known within policy circles for his work on the Industry Canada-led 2002 and 2007 S&T strategies and leadership of the secretariat that supported the Jenkins expert panel review of federal support for R&D. To the wider innovation community and the general public, however, he is largely an unknown entity.

That insider status has led some to contend that the Liberal administration has opted to pull the NRC closer the centre of government by appointing a senior bureaucrat rather than an outsider as the last four presidents – McDougall, Dr Pierre Coulombe, Dr Michael Raymont (acting) and Dr Arthur Carty – have been.

NRC Presidents

Henry Marshall Tory 1928-1935 mathematics
AGL MacNaughton 1935-1939 civil engineering
CJ Mackenzie 1939-1952 civil engineering
E W R Steacie 1952-1962 physical chemistry
Bristow Guy Ballard 1962-1967 electrical engineering
WG Schneider 1967-1980 pure chemistry
J Larkin Kerwin 1980-1989 physics
Pierre O Perron 1989-1994 metallurgy
Arthur Carty 1994-2004 inorganic chemistry
Michael Raymont 2004-2005 (acting) chemistry
Pierre Coulombe 2005-2010 medicine
John McDougall 2010-2016 petroleum engineering
Maria Aubrey 2016 (acting, 5 months)program management
Iain Stewart 2016-marine affairs

In a written response to questions from RE$EARCH MONEY, the NRC says "Mr Stewart's mission and mandate at a high level is to help the NRC support the advancement of the Innovation Agenda through science excellence and business innovation. Given his appointment is effective August 24th, 2016 it would be premature to elaborate at this stage."

In addition to internal and external consultation, Stewart will have a new three-year program review report to work with as he conducts the government's required assessment of the NRC. The review is the result of an extensive consultation with NRC executives, staff and external stakeholders "to assess the continued industrial relevance and client engagement success of NRC programs (to) provide recommendations to NRC on potential program continuation, termination, or change in light of market factors".

The review, which has not been publicly released, will address six key components:

• Value proposition and unmet business need

• Market assessment

• Business development

• Stakeholder engagement

• Financial and technical performance (revenue targets, etc.)

• Type and magnitude of benefits to


"Iain Stewart is an excellent choice … The appointment appears to be linked formally to a proper assessment of what is and what is not working in the new NRC model," says Dr Richard Hawkins, a professor in the Science Technology and Society Program at the University of Calgary. "Turning what was mostly – let's face it – an academic institution without students into a "1-800 innovation" number was a pretty audacious move. So there is a genuine learning opportunity here that could benefit any or all of the future initiatives that the government might pursue. Let's hope they give Mr Stewart the resources he needs to grasp it."

Tested civil servant

One long-time innovation policy practitioner and NRC observer described Stewart as a "tested civil servant who has deep knowledge of several federal ST&I strategies", and that his selection "adheres to a time-worn policy of appointing a bureaucrat to set things straight, thus ensuring control within the current government song sheet". The observer further states that the NRC has demonstrated "adaptability by surviving repeated political attempts to revise, re-orient, realign and restructure its mandate and mission – even the rumoured attempt by the previous (Conservative) government to eliminate it altogether".

"NRC has been on a downhill slide for some time, with missing leadership at all levels – ministerial, managerial as well as its own council … the NRC Act makes clear that statutory responsibility rests with the council," the observer says. "What the NRC will look like after this … is anyone's guess. What matters is how the NRC can be usefully imbedded within the ecology of our domestic and international science venture, including the re-branding of Canada on the global research scene."

Dr Martha Crago, VP research at Dalhousie Univ, also characterizes Stewart as "an excellent person to lead the NRC". Stewart worked under Crago in 2009-10 as assistant VP research with responsibility for ocean science, policy, innovation and partnerships where she says "he showed a very strategic capacity to situate fundamental university science in a mutually reinforcing relationship to industry innovation".

"Iain's strength is his ability to develop a plan in a complex space and then build on it by engaging various constituencies. He appreciates, respects and has knowledge of the various aspects and components of the research-innovation space," says Crago. "The NRC will need to find its way forward in today's rich ecosystem of university research, federal science, big science and new large-scale initiatives … and the formation of local economic clusters. It is a great time for science in Canada and for the NRC to find a leading role in Canada's pursuit of excellence in science and a strengthened economy."

One commentator who wished to remain anonymous says the current environment of consultation and change at the political and policy levels may prove challenging for NRC in the short term.

"One challenge will be to align any new NRC internal mandate/mission review within the larger policy consultation that has been launched," the individual states. "Another challenge is to give NRC an interim raison d'être while all this is going on."

The suite of dramatic changes enacted by the NRC executive in recent years has had a disruptive impact on staff, many of whom chaffed at the lost ability to conduct fundamental targeted research. One senior manager describes McDougall's attitude towards NRC staff as "you are either with us or you move on" and says that although the structural changes of its transformation to an RTO are largely complete, "change is not done until you have people's hearts and minds. He did not have that".

Appointment "a lost opportunity"

At least one NRC researcher sees the appointment of a president without experience as a scientist as a lost opportunity.

"I am very disappointed by the appointment of a non-scientist bureaucrat … Someone who has been a working scientist, at the frontier between industry and academia, applied and basic research, would be best suited for the job," says the scientist who requested anonymity. "The mandate given to Stewart is broad and the outcome will depend on who he consults. It should not be just inside NRC, but it has to include its scientific staff … Let's hope it won't take too long; otherwise it could end up as some sort of Chinese water torture. Considering the damage done to NRC, rebuilding a proficient organization could come with a hefty price tag."

Defining a sustainable role for the NRC in a rapidly changing policy environment will be a major challenge. Another observer says fundamental science and discovery research are best conducted at universities, while commercialization should be left to industry.

"The one thing that government labs can do better … is to manage expensive research infrastructure that is made available to industry. The biggest mistake that Iain could make is to emphasize contract research — that was the death knell for both the Ontario Research Foundation and BC Research (former provincial research organizations)."

The NRC's role in managing national infrastructure was highlighted by Adam Holbrook, an adjunct professor and associate director at Simon Fraser Univ's, Centre for Policy Research on Science and Technology. In addition to its critical role in providing national standards for aerospace, construction and other sectors, he says its role in managing big science facilities must be maintained.

"NRC no longer needs to provide a home for basic physics, chemistry or astrophysics, but it does need to have a strong role supporting institutions such as TRIUMF or the Canadian Light Source, so that Canada has a firm foothold in the basic sciences," says Holbrook.

Editor's Note: Iain Stewart declined an interview request but agreed to speak with RE$EARCH MONEY once he assumes his official duties. Science minister Kirsty Duncan was not available for an interview.


Other News

Events For Leaders in
Science, Tech, Innovation, and Policy

Discuss and learn from those in the know at our virtual and in-person events.

See Upcoming Events

You have 1 free article remaining.
Don't miss out - start your free trial today.

Start your FREE trial    Already a member? Log in


By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies. We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.