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  • President's Message

New portfolio, new opportunities

by Alan Bernstein
Apr 8 / 19

In 2017, CIFAR issued our second Global Call for Ideas. We invited the global research community to propose  new programs that address complex, fundamental questions of importance to the world. The ideas had to be novel and bold, with the potential to change the conversation in important areas of science, and have exceptional leadership and proposed membership.

In deciding which proposals to support, we were greatly assisted by an exceptional group of leading researchers from around the world. We are very grateful for their expert knowledge and wisdom in assisting us in these decisions.

As you can read in detail elsewhere in today’s newsletter, the outcome of Global Call 2 is a timely and compelling new portfolio of programs, a major overhaul and updating of our portfolio that will guide CIFAR’s major directions for the next five years and beyond. CIFAR’s new portfolio of 13 programs includes four new programs coming out of the Global Call.

As always, our new portfolio is problem-based and spans all the disciplines, including the biomedical, physical and social sciences. They fall into four natural broad thematic areas:

Life & Health, Individuals & Society, Information & Matter and Earth & Space. I hope you will take the time to read about the new programs and that you will agree with me that these new programs, together with the ongoing programs, make for an exciting, timely and important portfolio that addresses some of the most important questions facing science and humanity. As always, your feedback is welcome!

In developing the Global Call and the final selection, we have moved to a co-directorship model in which all the new programs and increasingly our existing programs are co-directed by two fellows, one male and one female. This evolution of our leadership model reflects the value we have always placed on diversity and equity, values that have been made explicit in our five year Strategic Plan.

I am often asked for the evidence that the CIFAR model “works;” that is, are there examples  where the convening of exceptional scientists and scholars into a CIFAR program actually results in the synergy and transformative advances in knowledge that would not have happened otherwise. My answer of course is always “yes,” and I have many examples at my fingertips. The most recent is the awarding of the highly prestigious US$1 million Turing Prize – also known as the “Nobel Prize of Computing” – to three CIFAR fellows: Yoshua Bengio (University of Montreal, Mila), Geoffrey Hinton (University of Toronto, Google, the Vector Institute) and Yann LeCun (New York University, Facebook) for their development of “deep learning.”

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun came together into a new  CIFAR program in 2004 when Hinton founded what is now the Learning in Machines & Brains program. The goal of that program, founded during the “AI winter” – so-called because most researchers in the field had given up on the idea that computers could be taught to learn – was to ask fundamental questions about how humans learn and explore how to apply that understanding to developing machines that can learn. That CIFAR effort has unlocked an avalanche of research all over the world in artificial intelligence (AI) and resulted in literally hundreds of billions of dollars of private sector investments in deep learning.

The  New York Times article last month on the award named CIFAR, and recognized the important role CIFAR had in bringing the three researchers together.

The deep learning AI story is just one success story among many that demonstrate what’s possible when outstanding researchers are given the time and environment of a CIFAR program to think big, to learn from each other, to collaborate across disciplines, all within a trusting and open environment.  

For all of us at CIFAR, we fully expect that the four new programs that have just been announced will one day again change science and our understanding of the world around us and once again demonstrate the power of bringing the world’s very best researchers together into a CIFAR program.