• President's Message

Fundamental research is vital to innovation

by Alan Bernstein
Feb 11 / 19

As a postdoctoral fellow in London in the 1970s, I set out to understand how a family of viruses called retroviruses causes cancer in chickens.

alan-staffbio_R2This raised a problem when I was applying for a fellowship to support the high cost of living in London. Why study retroviruses that for the most part don’t cause cancer in humans (although HIV, the cause of AIDS, is also a retrovirus). And why study cancer in chickens and not in humans? Our justification was that by studying these simple viruses, whose genomes are about 300,000 times smaller than ours, we hoped to gain some insights into the molecular underpinnings of all cancers.

Much to our surprise and delight that turned out to be the case!  The research on avian retroviruses led to the discovery of genes involved in human cancer, transformed our understanding of cancer, and resulted directly and surprisingly quickly, to drugs like Herceptin and Gleevec for the treatment of breast cancer and chronic myelogenous leukemia, respectively. Today, the cancer drug development pipeline can be directly linked back to that fundamental research of 40 years ago, research that at the time had no obvious relevance to human cancer.

The story of the discovery of human oncogenes is just one example of the intimate link between fundamental research and innovation. Fundamental research is inspired by curiosity about the unknown and the desire to understand the world around us. It leads to discoveries that are the basis for solutions to real world  problems. There are examples after examples in the history of science and innovation demonstrating the same point: the best way to fuel innovation is to support fundamental research.

For nearly four decades, CIFAR has been supporting fundamental research across all the sciences in order to understand and gain reliable knowledge about the physical, biological and social worlds around us, to marvel at the beauty of the universe in which we live, and to create a platform of robust, reliable knowledge upon which to build new technologies and evidence-based public policy.

Our support for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is a textbook example of the vital link between fundamental research and innovation. In the 1990s, we launched a new program in AI (today called Learning in Machines & Brains) led by Geoff Hinton (now a CIFAR Distinguished Fellow) and including Yoshua Bengio and Yann LeCun (now co-directors of Learning in Machines & Brains) to ask fundamental questions about how humans learn and how to apply that understanding  to machine learning. Today they are known as the godfathers of AI. Their research and that of the other members of our program launched the AI revolution. That revolution is, simply put, changing everything, from medicine to transportation to banking.

Similarly, earlier work in our program in Population Health (that program has also evolved and been renamed Child & Brain Development) led directly to an appreciation of the importance of a child’s earliest years. Today, Child & Brain Development is focussed on understanding the molecular, cellular and societal underpinnings of brain development in the first years of life that set a lifelong trajectory of optimal physical and mental health. In turn, that understating has informed the development of public policy, leading to publicly subsidized all-day nursery schools here in Canada and abroad.

The intimate linkage between world-leading fundamental research and its ultimate application in developing disruptive new technologies or informing the development of public policy is what gives science its unique power.  And it is the reason that we are grateful to the governments, corporations, foundations and individuals that are so generous in their support for CIFAR. Together we are changing the world.