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An anniversary for Canada, and for CIFAR

by Alan Bernstein Feb 13 / 17

This year is Canada’s 150th birthday. It’s a milestone all Canadians can be proud of, not least because of the important contributions our country has made to science and innovation.

alan-staffbio_R2From Alexander Graham Bell’s work on the telephone, to Banting and Best’s development of insulin, to the discovery of stem cells by Till and McCulloch, to the creation of the Canadarm used on the space shuttle, Canada has made more than its share of contributions to advancing human health and well-being.

This year also marks CIFAR’s 35th anniversary, and in that time we’ve also made our own important contributions to research in Canada and in the world. Since CIFAR’s beginnings in 1982, we have been connecting Canada’s best scientists and scholars with each other and with the best in the world.

Since then, CIFAR success has been greater than even Fraser Mustard, CIFAR’s first president, could have imagined. We have grown to an organization with almost 400 research fellows in 14 programs from over 110 institutions in 18 countries around the world. We have been associated with 18 Nobel Laureates, and not a month goes by when our fellows don’t continue to accumulate some of the world’s most prestigious honours and awards for their contributions to science and scholarship.

From the beginning the Institute set its sights high. One of the first programs we launched was Artificial Intelligence, Robotics & Society, which looked at problems of human vision and control. That program played a major role in the creation of the Canadarm, one of Canada’s most recognizable pieces of technology.

That first program also led to the launch of what is now our program in Learning in Machines & Brains, which has revolutionized the field of artificial intelligence (AI) – the fellows in that program now have leadership positions in AI at Google, Baidu, Microsoft and Facebook, among others. It’s fair to say that CIFAR’s early investment in deep learning, the form of AI that lies behind most of what you read about daily in the media, is now transforming everything from banking to agriculture to health to driving and more. Industry estimates are that AI developments are valued at well over $US70 billion. The AI story is a great illustration of how CIFAR’s approach to research – bringing together outstanding researchers from around the world in high-risk areas of research – can pay off in both profound advances in understanding and in innovations that are changing our world.

Previous successes also include the program in Population Health, which helped advance the idea that our socioeconomic status has profound effects on health and development. That program gave rise to the current program in Child & Brain Development, which has made tremendous advances in understand the biological embedding of experience and its importance for the health and development for children and adults.

If your tastes run to more fundamental questions, we can point proudly to our program in Cosmology & Gravity, which examines how the universe was created and evolves. In 2015, CIFAR Associate Fellow Art McDonald shared the Nobel Prize for his discovery that neutrinos have mass – an important discovery for our understanding of fundamental physics.

All of us associated with CIFAR should take pride in these and other advances that CIFAR helped catalyze. In fact, the only concern I have about citing examples is that for every one I name there are many others just as important.

That’s because of the way CIFAR works. We bring together the top minds from around the globe in collaborative networks that allow them to pursue research questions that have the potential to change the world.

As Canada enters its 150th year, we are playing an increasingly important leadership role in the world. Indeed, many international observers, including the New York Times, have noted that Canadian leadership is increasingly important in a world that has become more divided and fractious. And I can’t think of a better instrument for Canada to use on the world stage than science. As Louis Pasteur, the great French microbiologist, once said: “Science knows no country because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.” Since our beginning 35 years ago, CIFAR has been a beacon shining a light on some of the most important questions of our time. That’s the mission CIFAR has taken on, and its one that will continue to position Canada in the centre of some of the most important global discussions taking place today. That’s our way of saying Happy Birthday, Canada.