Letters measured degrees of NRC snobbery


by admin on April 6, 2011

By Art mantell


Wow! Would I love to be a fly on the wall of my old employer, the National Research Council of Canada, last March 2 when a new president told 4,250 staffers that henceforth 80 per cent of its $749-million budget would be directed to applied science, and what was left could be spent on pure science.

In my ten-year stretch as a NRC public relations flack that ended in the 70s, I was an eyewitness to the workings of a scientific institution that placed pure research on a pedestal, regarded any valuable industrial spin-off as a happy but unimportant event and based office relationships on the level of your university degree. To have less than a PhD was considered inferior, and if degreeless you didn’t get much recognition at all.

Perhaps my view is jaundiced because I saw several instances of educational snobbery in action. One case in particular sticks out. Jack was a simple technician working in the electrical engineering division. He shared a bullpen with several other techies, but he stood apart from his peers. Because in those days, when science still didn’t know how microwaves worked, he did. So much so that he was considered a ranking expert in that field and his services were highly sought by outside institutions.

For all that, he ranked so low being degreeless that he couldn’t even get an office of his own. But when he died suddenly, the PhD who succeeded him got his own office and a big budget and staff to continue our poor sod’s research. In a year, the PhD was doing something else and the work quietly evaporated. He was irreplaceable if unrecognizable.

There was another case where a technician was a world-beater in aviation. His invention was the crash position indicator, an envelope that flipped out of a plunging aircraft, enabling rescuers to zone in on its transmitting signal. He, too, worked in a crowded bullpen with recognition very hard to come by.

In another case a technician produced a world-beating heart instrument that was recognized as a breakthrough in medicine. The NRC, recovering brilliantly, got him an honorary PhD to make him one of them, albeit artificially, so they could trot him out at scientific events and crow about his accomplishments.

Today the NRC has turned the tables on its pure science devotees. No more pie in the sky projects, the new president seems to be saying. Instead, it will be a nuts and bolts approach to science, and top management will dole out the money as it sees fit, rather than allocation divisional budgets as once was the case.

Those at the NRC who are hesitant about the new direction “will need some help,” its new head warned. As a result, stories are spreading about NRC staffers fearing layoffs. They can relax. Nobody in the civil service is ever fired.

It’s a new day dawning for the NRC – if its new boss can keep his job for more than a few months. But there’s an election coming, and all bets on this are off.

I, for one, am pulling for him to succeed. I think it’s time for all the unrecognized talents that must still lay around the NRC labs to be given a chance to shine in public, instead of labouring in anonymity as so many have done in the past.

Maybe this time around, recognition will come for the work one does rather than for the initials behind one’s name.