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CIFAR has been invaluable in helping me build international connections.

Irene Bloemraad
Senior Fellow, Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being

CIFAR History

1970s to today: A bold initiative in Canadian research

CIFAR was founded on the belief that Canada has an important role in finding new ways to create a better future for the world.

1970s : Advanced study at the University of Toronto
The idea for creating an institute of advanced research originated within the University of Toronto by its Dean of Graduate Studies, John Leyerle. He envisioned a centre where scholars and scientists from the humanities, and the social, natural and life sciences could collaborate internationally on advanced research.

Future CIFAR President Fraser Mustard was one of several people inspired by Leyerle’s idea for multidisciplinary scholarship. As vice-president for health sciences at McMaster University at the time, Fraser saw its true potential. To him, an advanced research institute was the best strategy for creating a network of researchers from universities across Canada bound together in the pursuit of excellence and global impact.

1980s: National interdisciplinary institute
In 1982, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research was born, and Mustard was appointed president. The Institute found university, government and private sector partners to support the creation of an independent research entity and began to recruit distinguished scholars and scientists from across Canada and around the world.

Radical for its time, the Institute embraced interdisciplinary research and brought a fresh, creative focus to research in Canada. The Institute’s first research program, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Society, was launched in October 1983. Soon, topics like space science and evolutionary biology were explored as potential research programs which eventually evolved into new research areas such as the evolution of the earth and the biodiversity of microbes. CIFAR Timeline.

1987: Population Health is launched
One of the most well-known examples of CIFAR’s breakthrough research is the Population Health program launched in 1987. This unique group of Canadian and international investigators from diverse fields such as economics, epidemiology, public policy, politics, anthropology, sociology, child development, endocrinology and immunology came together to better understand how social and economic status affects health. In 1994, they published several important papers and the award-winning and often-cited book, “Why are Some People Healthy and Others Not?” showing how policies driven by population health could address health disparities. They named 10 determinants of health, listing socio-economic status as the most influential and earning support because of their focus on measuring outcomes.1 In this way, the researchers developed a new understanding of how health is distributed in populations and the factors that underpin these variations. This work has had a profound influence on the way policy makers around the world develop, monitor and measure public health programs to take into account underlying social and economic factors. The term population health is now in widespread use; for example, a branch of the Public Health Agency of Canada was renamed 'Population and Public Health.'

Following the appointment of Chaviva Hošek as President and CEO in January 2001, the research that inspired Population Health evolved into two new areas of inquiry. Today, CIFAR researchers are studying the social institutions that affect health and equality. Their recent book, Successful Societies, provided opportunities to share their insights with the World Bank and other international organizations. Another group is finding significant links between the lifetime health effects of our early experiences and environment, providing ideas that hold potential for helping children with developmental delays and adults recovering from brain injuries.

Other notable accomplishments of CIFAR researchers include accurate predictions of sea-level change due to melting of Antarctic ice sheets; microscopic switches made from single molecules that behave like silicon transistors, opening the door to more powerful, efficient chips and circuits; geophysical models for evaluating the atmosphere of planets in other parts of the galaxy; and analysis of the economic successes and failures of countries based on the types of institutions developed during their colonial periods. CIFAR researchers share this knowledge with global leaders in business, government, academia and NGOs.

Today: Influential leader in advanced research
The Institute has become one of Canada’s foremost research assets. Today, nearly 340 researchers in 16 countries participate in our long-term, multidisciplinary and collaborative advanced research teams. The Institute has 11 flagship research programs and several emerging research initiatives in topics as diverse as improving health and environment, transforming technology, building strong societies, understanding human culture and charting the universe.

1 Megan Kirk, Laura Tomm-Bonde and Rita Schreiber, "Public health reform and health promotion in Canada," Global Health Promotion, February 17, 2014, doi: 10.1177/1757975913512157

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