Alan BernsteinOver the holidays I read an excellent book by Peter MacKinnon, past president of the University of Saskatchewan. During his distinguished tenure as president, he insisted that the university strive not only for excellence, but for pre-eminence. By that he meant that there must be tangible and objective recognition that a group of researchers is truly among the very best in the world.

At CIFAR we strive to bring together the world’s pre-eminent researchers and give them the time and support to tackle challenging questions of importance to the world. In December, the Rotman School of Management recognized the wisdom and success of the CIFAR philosophy by presenting us with its Creative Destruction Lab Award. The award recognizes our support for the ground-breaking research of an international group of outstanding researchers led by Geoffrey Hinton (U of T, Google), Yann LeCun (NYU, Facebook) and Yoshua Bengio (Université de Montréal) and their colleagues in CIFAR’s program in Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception.

The program gave rise to an entirely new approach to artificial intelligence called “deep learning” that takes its inspiration from our current understanding of the architecture and functioning of the human brain. Deep learning has shown tremendous success in enabling machines to learn to recognize objects in photos, or pick out individual words in spoken speech. Google and Facebook are using deep learning extensively, and it is already revolutionizing machine translation, driverless cars, human genomics and many other technologies.

Our award from the Rotman Creative Destruction Lab honours CIFAR’s belief that true innovation requires true excellence, big thinking and fearlessness. The Lab’s name refers to economist Joseph Schumpeter’s idea that the great strength of capitalism is its propensity for creative destruction, which sweeps away old and inefficient ways of doing business and leads to innovation and progress.

It’s a concept we take seriously at CIFAR. Our programs have the potential to overturn current dogmas and in so doing change not only science and research but also lead to new knowledge, technology, policies, and a more complete understanding of our place in the universe. Many of the ideas pioneered by fellows in our programs – from the relationship between early childhood experience and cognitive development, to artificial intelligence, to social identity, to quantum materials – are already changing the way we understand our world.

CIFAR’s program in Quantum Materials is another excellent example of the CIFAR philosophy. Our fellows are examining the properties of complex materials under extremes of temperature and pressure, seeking new insights into their structure and ability to allow electrons to flow through them unimpeded. This property, referred to as superconductivity has only been achieved at extremely low temperatures, but discoveries by CIFAR fellows are driving the temperatures higher and higher, bringing the goal of room temperature superconductivity closer. The ability to transmit electrons at room temperature with little or no loss of power would be a disruptive advance, perhaps equal in importance to deep learning. It would mean that electricity could be transmitted over large distances without loss of power, making renewable sources of energy in remote areas accessible to urban areas and large populations.

The federal government recognized the calibre of fellows in our quantum science programs last year when two out of five Canada First Excellence Research Fund (CFREF) awards (total value of $100 million) in the first round of competitions went to CIFAR fellows based at the Quantum Matter Institute at the University of British Columbia and at the University of Sherbrooke.

The leaders of the two CFREFs, Andrea Damascelli, director of the Quantum Matter Institute, and Alexandre Blais at Sherbrooke, are both senior fellows in QM, and Blais is also a fellow in our Quantum Information Science program. In all, the two CFREF’s include more than a dozen CIFAR fellows from both universities, including CIFAR Program Director Louis Taillefer.

This external recognition is evidence of the pre-eminence of the researchers we bring together and the unique synergy that happens when outstanding researchers, irrespective of discipline or geography, come together to address a challenging and important question. Their success also holds an important lesson for those who care (as we all should) about innovation, the process by which advances in research are turned into useful products for the marketplace. Innovation occurs when the very best minds are given the resources and the freedom to explore questions that interest them. Indeed, the history of disruptive innovation is replete with examples of scientific discoveries, motivated only by insatiable human curiosity about the world we live in, that have resulted in huge economic and social benefits for humanity. Antibiotics, computers, humanized insulin and other biological therapies, drugs made by recombinant DNA technology and combinatorial chemistry, diagnostic imaging based on ultrasound and NMR technologies, modern vaccines, new modes of transportation, the internet and ICT more broadly, are just a few examples of advances in research that have led to enormous progress for humanity.

It has been argued in Canada and elsewhere that a focus on long-term academic research is not the optimal strategy to achieve innovation. The advances and innovations made by the fellows in the NCAP program illustrated that this is not the case.

Indeed, at CIFAR, we have a deeply rooted belief that it is a false dichotomy to argue the merits of pre-eminence in research vs. disruptive innovation. In fact, we believe that the opposite is true: discovery and research at the frontiers of human knowledge are the fuel that powers the engine of economic growth.

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