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Iain Stewart replaces John McDougall, whose leave of absence threw a planned restructuring into limbo.Kurhan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The federal government has appointed Iain Stewart, an under-the-radar bureaucrat with a background in innovation policy, as the next president of the National Research Council of Canada.

Kirsty Duncan, the Minister of Science, announced the appointment in a statement released Thursday evening, saying: "Mr. Stewart brings substantial management experience and knowledge related to science, innovation and economic-development policies and programs, as well as a keen interest in supporting science-based research."

Mr. Stewart is set to take the helm of the government's principal research and development organization and its $1-billion-a-year budget on Aug. 24.

He replaces John McDougall, a Harper government appointee who quietly stepped away on leave of absence last March, a move that threw a planned restructuring into limbo and left open the question of what role Justin Trudeau's Liberals envision for the 100-year-old council.

Beginning in 2010, Mr. McDougall oversaw a controversial time of transition for the NRC, which included a focus on market-driven research and markedly less emphasis on basic science. In contrast, the current government has generally stressed the importance of fundamental research but has, as yet, offered no specifics about the NRC.

In at least one respect, the new appointment continues a trend that began with Mr. McDougall's tenure, of choosing an NRC president who does not have personal experience as a research scientist as part of his résumé.

Instead, Mr. Stewart, who holds a master's degree in public administration, will make the transition from his current job as an associate secretary with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, where he has been based since June 2014. His previous roles in the federal government include stints at Industry Canada (now the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development) related to various aspects of research and innovation policy.

He also worked at Dalhousie University in 2009-2010 under Martha Crago, the university's vice-president of research.

"He is a person with genuine curiosity and respect for research and science," said Dr. Crago, who added that Mr. Stewart worked to build ocean science related initiatives while he was at Dalhousie and described him as both a listener and a doer.

Perhaps even more significantly for the NRC's future, in 2011 Mr. Stewart served as secretary for the expert panel that produced the Jenkins report. The report, named after panel chair Tom Jenkins, offered a sweeping re-think of Canada's federal R&D policy and recommended transforming some parts of the NRC into industry-oriented non-profit research organizations and others into research institutes affiliated with universities.

Peter Nicholson, the founding president of the Council of Canadian Academies who was an adviser to the Jenkins panel, called Mr. Stewart "a terrific appointment" who is uniquely qualified for the job at a time when the NRC is trying to re-invent itself in a change research landscape.

He added that Mr. Stewart's experience in the public service and his ability to connect with the government at a high level outweighed any deficits that critics may perceive in having a non-scientist leading the council.

"The NRC needs someone at the helm who understands Ottawa deeply," Dr. Nicholson said. "I think it's fair to say the NRC has been a bit of an isolated island over the last many years. That isn't good for NRC, it isn't good for government and it isn't good for science and technology in Canada."

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