E.W.R. Steacie

E.W.R. Steacie

BORN: Westmount, Quebec • 25 December 1900

DIED: Ottawa, Ontario • 28 August 1962

Some bureaucrats stand out because of their suspicion of bureaucracy. Dr E.W.R. Steacie, the president of the National Research Council for a critical decade after 1952, was one such worrier. He wanted government to put more money into scientific research in Canada, and he recognized that science would lose some of its freedom as a result; no govern¬ ment would simply pump in money without wanting to ensure that it was wisely spent.

But Steacie under¬ stood that science had to be driven by the interest of researchers and that nothing could be more fatal than to control, direct, and shape it. Bureaucracy and bureaucrats must be kept in their proper place.His tough-minded vigilance put Canadian scientific research on the right path at a critical time in its development.

Ned Steacie was the son of an army captain who was killed at Ypres in April 1915. He thought of being an officer too and went to the Royal Military College for a year before he decided that the military was not for him. Instead, he went to McGill University, was captivated by science, and went on to complete a chemical engineering degree in 1923 and a PhD in physical chemistry in 1926.

His progress thereafter was steady—the faculty at McGill, a research fellowship in Europe that took him to Germany and London, more teaching in Montreal,and in 1939 an appointment as director of the Chemistry Division at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

Already a prominent researcher in chemical kinetics and free radical chemistry, where his 200 papers and three books created a body of work characterized as “monumental,” Steacie’s tasks in Ottawa became increasingly dominated by administration. His intention was to convert the NRC’s industrial research focus in chemistry into a pure and applied research direction. But the declaration of war a few months after his arrival in Ottawa put him to work on military research.

In 1944 he became deputy director of the Anglo- Canadian Atomic Energy Project in Montreal, a post that brought him into intimate contact with the greatest secrets of the war and, after revelations of Soviet spy rings reaching into the laboratory in September 1945, with the impending Cold War.

Steacie understood clearly the military impera¬ tives of secrecy, but when he was president of the NRC he arranged for a Soviet Academy of Sciences—NRC scientific exchange program to attempt to knock down some of the barriers. Scientists, both Soviet and Western, he believed, needed the greatest possible freedom if the scientific method was to survive.

At the Chemistry Division after the end of the Second World War, he developed a successful plan for postdoctoral fellows to come from overseas to work with the Canadians in the NRC. In 1950 Steacie became vice-president of the NRC and, two years later, president. His role was to encourage the production of more researchers, to build up laboratories for industrial research, and to encourage Canada’s industries to do more research themselves.

One of his first jobs was to persuade Prime Minister Louis St Laurent of the need to provide much more money to extend and improve scientific research in the universities, and he also secured support to extend his postdoctoral fellow¬ ship program into academe.

He pressed university engi¬ neering departments to do more research, using funds provided by the NRC, and by the end of the 1950s he had increased government financial support tenfold and helped to establish the support structure that allowed university research to flourish in ways that would have appeared inconceivable a quarter-century before.

At the same time, he created a scheme to encourage research in industry with an NRC program that provided matching grants to interested companies. Characteristically, Steacie insisted that the projects were to be in areas that interested industry, not those of direct concern to government. Government, he believed correctly, ought to encourage research, not plan, organize, or coordinate it.

As head of the NRC, Steacie spoke widely across the country. Atypically for a scientist, he realized the importance of the humanities and social sciences in providing the acad¬ emic atmosphere that allowed research to flourish. He was, however, a man with a tart tongue, and he could not bear the superior airs that humanists, especially those with negligible achievements of their own, too often affected in the presence of scientists.

As one of his friends observed, “his intolerance of pretension could…occasionally find a refreshingly forceful outburst.” A practical, pragmatic man of action, Steacie’s impact on science and scholarship earned him an enduring stature as Canada’s pre-eminent scientific statesman.