The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) is a child of the National Research Council (NRC), which was created in 1917. From the outset, forces important to the establishment of NRC had a particular interest in universities. Canadian industry lobbied government to support university research, which it saw as a source of highly skilled workers and new product ideas. Naturally, the universities also sought government support for research, and considered an association with the newly created U.K. Research Council (set up in 1916), in the absence of a comparable Canadian organization.
Thus, one of NRC's earliest activities was to provide support for university-based research, which it accomplished through two programs: "Studentships and Fellowships" (now NSERC Scholarships and Fellowships) and "Grants for Assisted Researches" (known today as NSERC Discovery Grants.) In 1917, the fledgling NRC awarded four Studentships and three Fellowships; this number had grown to forty-five by 1923. To put this into context, NSERC awarded nearly 2,000 scholarships and fellowships in its 2003 competition.
NRC started to branch out into national laboratories in the 1930s, giving rise to concerns about a single agency both performing and supporting research. The issue came to a head in the 1950s and 1960s with the postwar growth of universities and their emergence as important centres of research. In 1968, the state of research and development in Canada was the subject of a rigorous examination by the Senate Special Committee on Science Policy, chaired by Senator Maurice Lamontagne. One of the items scrutinized was federal assistance to R&D activities in the physical, life and human sciences.
The committee published its final report in 1973. One of the report's recommendations was the separation of support for university research grants and support for national laboratories. The committee explained that relieving NRC of the responsibility for providing grants to universities would remove a potential for conflict of interest. The report states, "An agency is put in an unenviable position when it must decide whether a university group should be given grants to pursue projects that its own staff consider their prerogative." While there was no evidence of actual conflict of interest, and indeed the budget for grants for university research was always kept separate from appropriations for the research institutes, this concern was shared by other groups that had studied the organization of R&D in Canada over the years.
The Lamontagne report precipitated the tabling of Bill C-26 which, among other things, proposed the creation of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and NSERC. This bill gave NSERC two mandates: to promote and assist research in the natural sciences and engineering, and to advise the minister about matters relating to such research. The government's objectives for the granting councils were to:
"...encourage excellence in research; provide a base of advanced knowledge in the universities; assist in the selective concentration of research activities; aim for a regional balance in scientific capability; maintain a basic capacity for research training; encourage curiosity-oriented research; and encourage research with a potential contribution to national objectives. ... these objectives are intended ... to ensure long-term coherence in the federal system of university research granting." (Honourable Hugh Faulkner, then Minister of State for Science and Technology, during the opening comments of the second reading of Bill C-26.)
Bill C-26 came into force on May 1, 1978, and NSERC was born.
Gordon MacNabb was appointed NSERC's first president and a governing council was created for the new granting agency. To minimize disruption to the research community, NSERC's Council elected to maintain the Program of Grants and Scholarships in Aid of Research as established by NRC. One of the Council's first jobs was to prepare a five-year plan. "In the development of this plan, Council has been very much aware of the urgent need to improve the whole atmosphere surrounding research and research training in the universities throughout the country and to rebuild the confidence, optimism, and motivation so essential for the present and future researchers on whose accomplishments and leadership the scientific and technological progress of the nation ultimately depends." (G.M. MacNabb, in the foreword of NSERC's first five-year plan.) The major thrusts of the plan were:
The first five-year plan also supported, in principle, the development of major new research initiatives at the national and international levels (such as TRIUMF and the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope), and recognized the need for an effort aimed specifically at improving the state of engineering research and development within the university community. However, the first strategy emphasized the importance of the support of free research, which will remain the largest single initiative of Council in the foreseeable future.
Within two years, Council initiated three important programs: Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA), University Research Fellowships (URF), and Industrial Research Fellowships (IRF). These programs were designed to offset a potential shortage of highly qualified people. Early (USRA) holders included Alain Tremblay (now a professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal), Michael Jenkin (specialist in robotics at York University), and Tim Collings (inventor of the V-Chip). Notable in the first group of IRFs was Dr. Francesco Bellini, who held his fellowship at Ayerst Laboratories and went on to co-found BioChem Pharma, now Shire BioChem Inc. Early URF holders also rank among Canada's most eminent researchers and include: University of Toronto zoologist Ian Orchard, whose studies in insect neurobiology may result in safer pest management techniques; François Soumis, a professor of industrial engineering at École Polytechnique, whose work has helped to optimize transportation scheduling around the world and led to the formation of AD OPT Technologies Inc.; and Michael Thewalt, a physicist who has earned an international reputation for his superconductor research at Simon Fraser University.
In 1983, the federal government increased NSERC's budget for university-industry research partnerships. NSERC responded by regrouping existing activities, with some new initiatives, into a more comprehensive University-Industry Program. The "Project Research Applicable in Industry," or PRAI program, inherited from NRC, was modified, expanded, and renamed the "Collaborative Research and Development" program. The most significant new feature of the program was that it required industrial partners to contribute financially to the research project. Another new venture created for the University-Industry Program was the Industrial Research Professorship, now known as the Industrial Research Chair (IRC). Industrial Research Chairs help universities to build on existing strengths or to develop a major research capacity in areas of interest to industry. The first was the NSERC/New Brunswick Power Industrial Research Chair in Nuclear Engineering, held by Daniel Meneley. Since the beginning of the program, more than 300 Industrial Research Chairs have been established.
Today, NSERC provides about one sixth of all funds for university research and development in the natural sciences and engineering. Every year, more than 9,000 professors receive NSERC support for their work. Twenty-nine of the top fifty R&D companies have funded university research in partnership with NSERC. All together, about eleven hundred companies have participated in NSERC programs. As NSERC celebrates its 25th anniversary, the Council can reflect on a long history of service to Canada and look forward to a bright future of discovery and innovation that will help maintain Canada's prosperity and scientific leadership in the twentieth century.
Thistle, Mel; The Inner Ring. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966.
A Science Policy for Canada, Volumes 1-3. Ottawa: Queen's Printer for Canada, 1970, 1972, 1973.
Hansard, December 13, 1976, p. 1938.
A Five-Year Plan for the Programs of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. Ottawa: 1979.
Contact. Volume 9, Number 1, April 1984.