ARCHIVED - Happy Birthday, NRC!

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June 06, 2006— Ottawa, Ontario

90 Years of Creativity, Collaboration and Contributions to Canada

NRC's first leader and Chairman Dr. A. B. Macallum
NRC's first leader and Chairman Dr. A. B. Macallum

This year, June 6, marks NRC's 90th anniversary. This birthday comes at a time when the entire organization is reflecting upon where we've been, where we are now, and where we are going in the future.

NRC has come a long way since its establishment in 1916 as the Honorary Advisory Council on Scientific and Industrial Research. Although it originally bore a different name – the name National Research Council was officially applied in 1924 – the organization was committed from the very start to strengthening the Canadian economy and improving the lives of Canadians through science and industrial research. The earliest projects involved the nation's precious natural resources and challenges brought about by the First World War.

Back in 1916, NRC had no labs or researchers of its own – a far cry from today's NRC with thousands of staff in labs and industrial research support facilities in every province. In its earliest days, there were only council members who had full-time jobs as university presidents, prominent science professors, and industry leaders.

At the outset the organization's role was to advise the Government of Canada (or the Dominion as it was known at that time) on important scientific matters. But without its own resources, NRC's responsibility was to lead coordinated research by bringing together the best minds and available research equipment from different organizations, including other government departments, universities, the private sector businesses, professional and industry associations, and international counterparts. This traces NRC's collaborative roots back to the very start.

Eventually critical wartime growth led to NRC receiving more funds and moving from a few borrowed rooms on Parliament Hill to makeshift facilities in a former pulp and paper mill, the Edwards building. The building, located near the Ottawa River, became known as the John Street laboratory and eventually housed NRC's first full-time researchers and its earliest specialized facilities, a wind tunnel, towing tank and Canada's anti-chemical warfare plant for protective respirators (gas masks).

NRC's wind tunnel in the John Street Lab
NRC's wind tunnel in the John Street Lab

Much has been written about NRC being home to countless technological innovations, creative processes, significant discoveries in basic (or pure) sciences, important contributions to Canada's industrial research and other incredible advances. Unfortunately, the most celebrated NRC achievements sometimes overshadow other success stories and often a single individual rather than teams are praised, when it fact it usually takes talented researchers, scientists, technical officers, machinists, industry partners, administrative and business development staff to successfully move something from discovery to innovation.

Preserving the Health of Canadians

From the beginning, NRC has been involved in protecting the health and wellness of Canadians by responding to pressing wartime technology, safety and medical requirements. In the 1920s the Government of Canada asked NRC to form an Associate Committee on Tuberculosis (TB) Research. This was a critical role, because at the time TB was the leading cause of human and animal deaths. Canadians were dying or too ill to be productive for our nation's economy and livestock was diseased and affecting Canada's food supply and the livelihoods of farmers.

Through the Associate Committee on Tuberculosis (TB) Research, NRC brought together a multidisciplinary 'think tank' that included key experts from various geographical locations and diverse institutions. NRC led similar collaborations through its other Associate Committees and eventually in its own labs by identifying key Canadian health needs, initiating projects, funding research through fellowships and grants, lending technical expertise, and representing Canada on international efforts.

These activities included research to stop bacteria growth in Canada's food supply, to minimize waste from agricultural crops, to pioneer work in high resolution nuclear magnetic resonance which contributed to today's MRI technology, to identify ways to prevent diseases through improved vaccine processes, to combat existing medical conditions (e.g. synthetic insulin for diabetics), to contribute to the invention of the heart pacemaker and cardiac defibrillator, and to understand the potential of and prepare to limit the effects of devastating epidemics. Today NRC's life science research initiatives build on these efforts through collaborative projects on global pandemics, infectious diseases and medical conditions related to aging. Staff work on improved technologies and processes for saving lives and keeping Canadians healthy.

NRC collaborated with other government departments and farmers for early wheat rust research
NRC collaborated with other government departments and farmers for early wheat rust research

Protecting the Security, Safety and Well-Being of Canadians

NRC has participated in numerous safety and security initiatives related to wartime efforts through to today's anti-terrorism projects. These activities show how dedicated NRC employees are to protecting the safety and security of Canadians through multidisciplinary research. From key roles in Canada's early radar and radio research, anti-chemical warfare research through to innovations that have included: creating the aircraft crash position indicator and bomb-sniffing technology; advancing fingerprint identification techniques; testing and modifying train, aircraft, ship and other vehicle designs to make transportation safer, more economical and capable of operating despite Canada's harsh weather conditions; studying infrastructure improvements (e.g. bridges); conducting critical fire research; and setting important national building codes and national measurement standards.

Bomb sniffer developed at NRC in the mid 1960s
Bomb sniffer developed at NRC in the mid 1960s

Identifying Alternative and Sustainable Energy and Environmental Technologies

In its early days NRC was tasked with finding ways to use Canada's abundance of straw waste to make fuel that could provide light and heat for farms. NRC is well known for playing an instrumental role in placing Canada on the map for nuclear research through its Montreal and Chalk River facilities established through Second World War projects involving Canada, Britain and the United States.

ZEEP reactor at Chalk River circa 1945
ZEEP reactor at Chalk River circa 1945

There have also been important NRC research initiatives involving offshore platforms, gas hydrates, hybrid transportation technologies, oil sands, fuel cells and other options for helping Canada meet future energy needs while carefully considering their environmental impact.

NRC researchers developed ways to model how heavy rain run-off and other pollutants affect water reservoirs, conducted membrane research to ensure Canadians have clean, safe drinking water through processes like reverse osmosis and worked on methods to identify dangerous marine toxins that have affected Canada's shellfish supply. Studying green rooftops, exploring bioprocesses, and monitoring emissions are other key factors in NRC's efforts to protect and improve the environment, while bioremediation research aims to clean up contaminated sites without causing further damage.

Strengthening the Canadian economy

From its earliest days, NRC focused on building Canada's innovation system and turning its research developments into valuable social and economic contributions to Canadian industry and society. By helping to identify substitute, homegrown products to replace imports that were cut off during war years, NRC researchers together with collaborative partners supported the creation of new industries. Irish moss seaweed, canola oil and new materials like artificial rubber and alternative magnesite are but a few examples.

NRC's Irish Moss seaweed research
NRC's Irish Moss seaweed research

Over the decades NRC has shared technical and business expertise, as well as scientific publications with this country's small- and medium-sized enterprises. Other contributions to Canada's economy have included important metrology, national measurement and calibration activities that affect Canadian exports, travel and much more. NRC's thin film technology work also helps Canada protect its currency from counterfeiting activities.

Many NRC technologies have been licensed and spin-off companies have gone on to contribute new jobs and millions of dollars of investment in Canada. IMRIS and Zelos Therapeutics Inc, for example, have experienced international recognition and raised record levels of financial investment.

Now more than ever, NRC is dedicated to industry support and partnerships, technology transfer, collaborative research, and commercialization to transform scientific innovation into economic opportunity. NRC industrial technology advisors, business development officers continue this role today.

Mixing science with creativity and universal mysteries

In addition to research endeavours aligned with serious issues such as health, energy and environment, NRC researchers also contribute to unique and fun projects, ranging from artistic initiatives to patriotic ones. NRC researchers are recognized for developing animation and three-dimensional graphic techniques that greatly influenced the film industry, the preservation of archival treasures and space exploration.

NRC is responsible for choosing the exact shade of red and testing the durability of fabrics for Canada's flag. NRC's wind tunnels have hosted race cars, model bridges, trucks, aircraft, and much more. NRC researchers have even tested the aerodynamics of athletic equipment and Olympic athletes, including Canada's 2006 Olympic medalist skeleton crew and the "Crazy Canucks" downhill skiers from the 1970s and 80s. NRC has been behind the scenes at the Olympics for many years, including designing the torch for the 1988 winter games in Calgary.

Canada's Olympic medalist Steve Podborski in an NRC wind tunnel
Canada's Olympic medalist Steve Podborski in an NRC wind tunnel

Most Canadians know that Canada's space program and the Canadarm are rooted in NRC history. Engineers, astronomers and astrophysicists at NRC have also contributed to satellite development, operated national telescopes, collaborated on international observatories and developed advanced technologies for studying realms beyond our world and for unraveling universal mysteries form many decades. Canada continues to be considered a leader in astronomy.

Mid-1910s construction of Canada's Plaskett telescope in Victoria, British Columbia
Mid-1910s construction of Canada's Plaskett telescope in Victoria, British Columbia

Looking to the future

Building on NRC's proud past of 90 years of creativity, collaboration and contributions, staff are preparing for NRC's vital future, by continuing to put Science at Work for Canada every day.

A few examples of less well-known research projects that NRC led, funded or participated in:

  • Developing numerous aids for the visually impaired, including a calculator (a cylindrical Braille slide rule) and an improved white cane
  • Studying ways to protect honey from spoiling and making Canada's maple syrup extra sweet
  • Designing the streamlined locomotive unveiled in the 1930s at the World's Fair
  • Measuring lightning strikes on Toronto's CN Tower
  • Creating musical instruments and recording equipment for Canada's first electronic music studios
  • NRC's bird gun for assessing aircraft hazards from bird strikes has become widely known through CBC's Royal Canadian Air Farce chicken cannon
  • Managing rocket facilities near Churchill, Manitoba, and studying the Northern Lights
  • Coordinating insect control research to protect Canadian crops
  • Studying ways to enhance the quality of French fries and potato chips
  • Conducting astronomy studies in Algonquin Park

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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