• Announcement

Dr. Alan Bernstein honoured by the Public Policy Forum

by CIFAR Apr 17 / 19
In a speech to attendees of the annual Testimonial Dinner, Dr. Bernstein discussed the links between science and policy, Canada’s leadership on the international stage, and the merits of interdepartmental committees.


Thank you, Lisa for that kind introduction and thank you Ed and the PPF for this high honour. And I congratulate my co-honourees for your remarkable contributions to public policy. It is humbling to share this stage with you.

Why a scientist among the honourees?  

Science is usually thought of as detached from everyday life.  But, in fact, it has always had public policy implications.

Consider Galileo and his dispute with the church.  Did the earth revolve around the Sun or vice versa?

Cigarette smoking and disease. This issue has occupied policy makers for decades, despite epidemiological data going back to the 1950s.

South Africa refused to accept the science that HIV caused AIDS. That was a public policy disaster that cost at least 300,000 lives.  

Despite the evidence, climate change remains the domestic and global public policy challenge of our time.  Today, new technologies like AI and genome editing are raising new public policy issues.

My introduction to public policy began in 1998 when I was on a Committee to explore replacing the Medical Research Council with a new agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

At our final meeting, the Minister of Health, Allan Rock, came to hear our recommendations. He was so excited he announced that he was going to establish an Interdepartmental committee to study it further.

Well, I was pleased.  I turned to Monique Begin, the former Minister of Health and Welfare under Pierre Trudeau and the minister responsible for the Canada Health Act - one of Canada’s most significant expressions of public policy - and said: “Isn’t that great!

Monique rolled her eyes and said: “Alan, in Ottawa when you want to kill something, you set up an Interdepartmental Committee.”

My second foray into public policy occurred shortly after I became CIHR’s president. The discovery that embryonic stem cell lines could be derived from human embryos opened up the possibility of using these cells to cure human disease.

But the use of human embryos is controversial. Faced with the absence of a law, I struck a committee to recommend Guidelines for Research involving Human Embryos.

When we published the Guidelines, the National Post ran an editorial entitled “The Impatient Dr. Bernstein” charging me with usurping Parliament’s role to pass legislation on this issue - which to date, they have never done.

What did l learn from this incident?   Science and public policy are not a marriage made in heaven.

Public life is challenging. It is challenging to be under the microscope while attempting to reach consensus on complex issues in a country as diverse as Canada.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who choose a career in public life. Good public policy is key to a successful country.

In addition to Monique, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the many people who had the patience to keep me from falling flat on my face. Many of you are here in this room tonight and to avoid the risk of leaving someone out, I want to thank all of you.  Your mentorship and friendship have mean a great deal to me.

Back to science! The process, language and values of science are shared across nations. Science therefore leads to a shared understanding of our world and its problems.

Science also challenges authority. Science is not about facts. It is about doubt. It is about overthrowing accepted wisdom through evidence. It is no accident that the motto of the Royal Society of London is not Truth or Knowledge but rather “Take no one’s word for it”. That motto was a direct challenge to the absolute authority of the monarch and the church.  

In short, science is a powerful voice for open, liberal democratic societies.

In these troubled times, the voice of science and the voice of Canada are needed more than ever.  Canada is a beacon of light. We are known for compassion, our diversity, openness to new ideas, and support of science and evidence.  

In what other country would the length of the census form become an election issue?

Canada is also the country where CIFAR began. CIFAR was founded on the premise that convening the world’s best scientists is essential to addressing the complex challenges facing science and humanity.

Like CIFAR, Canada can be a convener of the world’s nations to address the global challenges of our time.

We are the country where insulin and stem cells were discovered.

We are the country where the breakthrough in artificial intelligence took place, recognized just last month with the Turing Prize, the Nobel Prize of computer science, awarded to tonight’s Keynote Speaker Yoshua Bengio and his colleagues, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun - all 3 CIFAR Fellows.

I am proud to note the role that CIFAR and Canada played in the development of deep learning.

And Canadian scientists have received two Nobel Prizes in Physics in the past 5 years, including the first to a woman in 50 years!

With the closing of borders and minds happening elsewhere, Canada has been thrust into the spotlight as one of the world’s most desirable destinations for talent and the brightest young people, eager to change the world.  

Canadians are used to being in the chorus. Now, suddenly, we are on stage, alone and the audience is expecting an aria.  We have a lot to sing about. But let me focus on three suggestions.

First, double down on our investments in fundamental research.  Research not only advances knowledge: it is the feedstock for innovation - just look at the boom in private sector investments in AI in this country.  

Second, in the global competition for talent, provide opportunities for our young people to change the world. As a young student, my decision to become a scientist was motivated by the desire to use my brain to improve humanity.  I think more women and minority groups would choose a scientific career if they saw it as one of the best ways to change the world.

And third, kickstart a global conversation amongst the public, philanthropic and private sectors on how best to harness the power and unifying force of science to address the global challenges of our time: renewable energy, antibiotic resistance, urbanization, terrorism, environmental degradation, food, water and energy security, and rising income inequality, to name just a few.

We cannot let today’s opportunity go by without leveraging Canada’s growing reputation as a powerhouse of research and innovation, to harness science to benefit the world.

Thank you again for this honour.