Memoirs of a Boffin

Chapter 15: New Horizons

I left the Canadian Government in 1975 to re-enter the private sector, this time as a consultant - a role that was not unfamiliar to me on the inside of government during my years in the Privy Council Office.

At the time I left, I had few plans, except to take a few weeks or months of rest and relaxation. During that time I talked to many old friends including Dr. Philip Lapp, formerly of de Havilland but now a private consultant.

Phil and I had worked closely together on the satellite program during my RCA Victor period (1955-1965). We had jointly set up the first satellite project group in Canadian industry in order to develop the Alouette and ISIS series of research satellites. He was now (1975) a consultant with an office in the Yorkville district of Toronto. He had been Chief Engineer of the Special Products and Applied Research (SPAR) Division of the de Havilland Aircraft Company in those days and had stayed long enough to see it split off successfully as SPAR Aerospace before setting up on his own.

My thoughts had been going in a similar direction to his and he was one of the colleagues I naturally turned to for advice as to how to set about establishing my own consulting company. The result of these friendly conversations was a decision to join forces. Phil already had a small office in Ottawa, as well as his Toronto Office, so I took it over with the intention of building up the Ottawa end of the business.

The arrangement could hardly have been better. It meant no disruption to our lives and an opportunity to continue from the outside of government what I had been doing for ten years on the inside. After all, the Science Secretariat and MOSST were advisory bodies, albeit internal. The Science Council, whose terms of reference I had drawn up, was an external advisory body. Advising government was the business I was in. This was just another direction of approach.

Consulting contracts turned up, not only from the Federal Government, but also from several provincial governments. Most of them resulted from approaches by the client to us and we put very little effort into soliciting contracts and no money into advertising. There was not a lot of competition at the time. Indeed I think I set a fashion for a stream of senior executives who left the public service in the years that followed. A large proportion of them seem to have set up consulting companies or (God forbid) lobbying companies in Ottawa.

Over the next few years we became involved in a very wide range of consulting activities concerned with science and technology policies and institutions right across Canada. I had travelled more in other countries than I had in Canada, up to that time, so this work gave me the opportunity to become better acquainted with most of the Provinces.

Early in our association, we made a study of the Ontario Research Foundation (ORF), which was headed by our old friend Bill Stadelman. The province was showing the first signs of a policy that has now spread to the federal government. It was threatening to reduce its contribution to research and asking ORF to make up the shortfall by selling its services to industry. We pointed out the necessity for a balance between discretionary and contract research. Too much of the latter would turn the place into a technological “job-shop” for industry.

We did similar studies in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Québec and New Brunswick over the years. I am not sure they had a lasting effect. These Research Councils now perform very little basic research and could indeed be fairly described as technological job-shops, as a result of the cut-backs of government funding in the ’80s and in spite of our best efforts.

We also studied several federal government activities. One of the most successful was the study of the Defence Scientific Information Service. I had been involved with information policies in OECD days in the joint preparation of the Piganiol Report. The Service was suffering the transition to computer operation and there had been a tendency to leave the scientists who had designed the system conducting the information searches for clients. Not only were the scientists expensive but, dare I say it, they were not nearly as adept as young people newly trained in the work. Moreover they were, naturally, always tempted to make arbitrary changes to the system. As anyone knows, an operational system must be absolutely predictable and system changes only made infrequently and then quite formally. As a result, I think we improved the Service and saved the Government a substantial amount of money at the same time.

At one stage, we also became involved with the Auditor-General – on the right side, I hasten to say! He proposed to conduct a number of audits of research activities, both in government and in Crown Corporations (where they are euphemistically known as “special examinations”). There was little precedent for this work and, consequently no audit guidelines. One of the great difficulties, of course is the measurement of the output of research activities, not to mention the definition of them.

I was thoroughly familiar with the OECD Frascati Manual which, in the ’60s, for the first time had attempted detailed definitions of “pure” and “applied” research, “advanced development” etc. On the basis of this we developed a very thorough set of research audit guidelines which, I believe, are still in use. We were then called upon to provide expert advice to the audit teams during several such audits, including Transport Canada and the Atomic Energy of Canada Research Company. It doesn’t sound like a very exciting task, but I found working with the audit teams on their visits to the ‘clients’ both stimulating and informative. I had a high regard for the quality of the people I advised during these audits. It was also a particular privilege to renew my acquaintance with the AECL Research Company Laboratories in Chalk River and a great opportunity to update myself on their excellent work, performed in spite of declining government support.

In April 1985 our lives were shattered by the sudden death of our 36-year-old daughter, Valerie. Born in Malvern, England, Val had come to Canada with us in 1951, studied in high schools in Lachine and Ottawa (Ridgemont) and entered McGill University to read genetics. She graduated with a Commonwealth scholarship which she decided to serve in the University of Edinburgh. In 1980 she married a Professor of Pharmacology, Norman Poyser. By 1985 they had two children, Timothy and Natalie.

Valerie had been working for some years in the microgenetics laboratory, among other things implanting malignant tumours in the brains of small animals. We shall never know whether this work had any connection with her fate but such connections have been suspected in a French laboratory doing similar work, in which the incidence of brain cancer in the staff was ten times higher than that for the rest of the population. Be that as it may, it was a massive brain cancer that killed Valerie three weeks after the very first recognized symptoms.

The first symptoms appeared when she forgot a regular appointment. This was followed by a short sequence of uncharacteristic behaviour until it became obvious that she needed medical help. Within a matter of days, the specialist was sure she had a very rare, devastating cancer of which only three or four were recognized in Britain every year. Because of the suddenness of the diagnosis, we, in Canada, only learned of her illness at the time it was already suspected to be terminal. You can imagine the shock. Nesta was prostrate and I flew over to Edinburgh at once only to see Val in the hospital only a few hours before her death. She died that night. It took many months for our lives to return to a semblance of normality – and even then they were greatly changed.

All my consulting studies had been conducted from the Ottawa office that we had consolidated when I joined Philip A. Lapp Ltd. in 1975. But, with the birth of the personal computer in the early 1980s, it became increasingly convenient to work out of home. Our son Michael had graduated in 1976 in Computer Science and Economics from Trinity College, University of Toronto and after graduate work in Manchester joined Commodore Computers and, through this was invited to be a partner in Bristol Software. There they designed the first office software that included word processor, spreadsheets and the facility for automating many office procedures. The software was hugely successful and was sold to small and large companies in many countries. My competence as a computer user grew as Michael’s career developed starting on the Commodore Pet, followed by the Victor 9000 and a series of increasingly capable PCs, in pace with the rapid developments in the Industry. By the mid-80s all my work was performed on the computer.

Michael was living and working on Silicon Office in Guernsey in the Channel Islands at the time of Val’s death. Married, with two children (Andrew and Katherine), he decided to sell out his interests in the UK and return to Canada to be closer to us when we needed support. We are now happy to see him once more running his own software company (The Long Reach Corporation) in Manotick - half an hour South of us.

I retired from Philip A. Lapp Ltd in 1985 after bringing in a highly competent, entrepreneurial successor – Ken Hancock. Ken built up the business along his own lines and established Lapp-Hancock Associates after a couple of years or so. I continued to do some work under contract for both Companies but gradually found myself spending more time on projects that were of particular interest to me but which did not necessarily bring in a fee. Many of them were directly or indirectly related to my experience in international science committees and The Club of Rome.

A great deal of this work was concerned with the global energy picture, for reasons that will become evident as we progress.