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Something to celebrate

by Alan Bernstein Mar 19 / 18

Science has transformed our world. We live twice as long as we did at Confederation, smallpox has been completely eradicated, polio is almost wiped out, and we now have effective treatment for many diseases that were once death sentences.

Alan BernsteinScience and its offspring technology have opened up our world and transformed our lives. We take for granted the ability to flick a switch to heat and light our homes, and to communicate instantaneously with anyone on the planet. Science has also opened up the wonders of the universe, giving us a view of its very beginnings and the strange creatures that inhabit the cosmos – black holes, pulsars, gravitational waves, fast radio bursts. Very soon, science will reveal how the most complicated machines on our planet – our very own brains – function to comprehend the world around us, to store and retrieve memories, to feel emotions and to have an aesthetic sense of the world.

Despite this remarkable progress, science and scientists are increasingly distrusted and misunderstood. Anti-science attitudes, coupled with the rise of populism, are on the rise, and increasingly many people are turning away from science towards individuals who have “opinions” (i.e. not evidence) about everything from climate change to vaccines. And convincing governments around the world about the value and importance of investing in fundamental research remains on ongoing challenge.

That’s why last month’s Canadian federal budget is a budget to celebrate. The Government of Canada showed that it understands that research is key not only to human understanding, but also to the policy objectives it champions, including developing a more innovative and diversified economy and health system, and helping to secure Canada’s place in the world.

Over the next five years, the Canadian government will invest $925 million in increased funding for fundamental research through Canada’s three granting councils. That funding goes a long way towards making up for a decade of underinvestment in fundamental research. The budget also includes more than $1.3 billion over five years for equipment and infrastructure, new funding for the NRC and government labs, as well as funding for women innovators.

These historic increases didn’t just happen. Many people and organizations, working together, spoke with a single voice. The impetus came from the Fundamental Science Review, written by the Naylor Committee and commissioned by Canada’s Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan. It was informed by the many representations made in response from the research community (including CIFAR), foundations, individual Canadians, charities and industry.

Providing international levels of support for outstanding researchers to pursue their ideas is the proper role of government. Only the public sector can fund uncertain, long time line fundamental research of the sort that CIFAR supports. Without public support, we could not do what we have done so successfully for the past 35 years: identify the world’s top researchers and give them the freedom and time to pursue ideas which are ahead of their time. And only the private sector can take ideas that emerge from fundamental research and turn them into new products and companies. Canada’s global success in AI is a textbook example of the complementary roles of the public and private sectors. Deep learning, currently the most powerful form of AI, was developed under CIFAR’s auspices at a time when no company would have invested in that research. Today, according to McKinsey & Co., that research has unlocked hundreds of billions of dollars of private sector investment worldwide.

As John Hepburn and I wrote in an editorial in the Canadian Science Policy Centre, governments support fundamental research because they understand that it is essential for driving innovation, for improving our health care system, for ensuring a sufficient supply of individuals with scientific, engineering and critical skills, creating new jobs and for understanding the complex world in which we live. As a research community, we should thank the Trudeau government for appreciating the central role that research plays in a globalized knowledge economy. And only by funding the very best people, can we ensure that Canada and the world reap the benefits of these historic investments.