John McDougall, president of the National Research Council of Canada, is on an indefinite leave of absence for personal reasons, the federal government has confirmed.
The unannounced development comes at a turning point for the 100-year-old organization, which serves as the federal government's primary research arm and which took a hard turn toward the commercial sector under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
In a letter to staff last week, acting president Maria Aubrey wrote that a planned reorganization of the research council from three to five divisions, expected to take effect on April 1, had been postponed. The letter said that part of the reason for the delay was to "ensure alignment with the federal government's emerging innovation agenda."
Both the research council's role and Mr. McDougall's tenure as its president have been contentious topics in recent years. A former petroleum engineer with Imperial Oil Ltd. and CEO of the Alberta Research Council, Mr. McDougall represented a departure from the PhD scientists who have more typically led the council when he was appointed in 2010. His tenure marked the NRC's redirection from an emphasis on basic science to the research needs of private industry.
Last week, before news of Mr. McDougall's leave became public, federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan told The Globe and Mail that she was "trying to get a handle" on the NRC's recent evolution. Ms. Duncan is one of three ministers with overlapping roles that interact with research council.
"I've been watching where they are in their transformation and where they are in the broader science, technology ecosystem," she added.
In the recent federal budget, Ms. Duncan was tasked with leading a comprehensive review of "all elements of federal support for fundamental science over the coming year." The minister said she was in the initial stages of setting up the review and did not say to what extent it might encompass the NRC.
The NRC has a storied past that began with its founding during the First World War in 1916, followed by the establishment of permanent research laboratories on Sussex Drive in Ottawa in 1932. Over the years, it has played a role in a number of key innovations, including the invention of radar and the development of canola. More recently it has been at the forefront of laser physics and imaging, including an adaptive optics system that NRC researchers are currently developing for the Thirty Meter Telescope, as part of Canada's share in that international project.
The council is also known for its Industrial Research Assistance Program, which provides technical advice and support for small- and medium-sized businesses to enhance innovation in the private sector, an area where Canada is known to lag. The new budget commits an additional $50-million to the program in the current fiscal year while a longer-term strategy on innovation is under development.
If Mr. McDougall's departure is permanent, a key question will be what role Justin Trudeau's government now sees for the NRC and its nearly 4,000 employees. Although universities increasingly account for the bulk of scientific research in Canada, many policy experts see the NRC's laboratories, scientists and specialized technical support staff as a necessary component of a national scientific enterprise.
Arthur Carty, executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology and president of the council from 1994 to 2004, said that the NRC should seek to strengthen partnerships with universities to maintain its relevance, and that its success would ultimately depend on its ability to attract and foster world-class research talent.
"It's the people that make the difference," he said. "You get the bright people who want to achieve something, then you can make it work."