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The long game is worth playing

by Alan Bernstein Nov 5 / 19
When most of us think of world-changing outcomes from science and research, such as vaccines, the internet, or technologies like CRISPR, we often don’t consider or are even aware of the decades of work that led up to that breakthrough discovery.


Time allows researchers to challenge paradigms and explore high-risk ideas for high-reward outcomes.  Time is frequently essential for a paradigm-shifting discovery to be accepted and appreciated, even by the original discoverer. And time can be essential to understand complex multifactorial problems, such as child and brain development, rising inequalIty, the role of institutions in economic growth and the flow of electrons through condensed materials. 

And that is why time, along with sustained, long term commitment, is a central ingredient to CIFAR’s unique approach to advancing knowledge.

Today, the most pressing and complex questions facing humanity, issues such as climate change, populism and xenophobia, mental illness, racism and income inequality, are not bound by geographic or disciplinary borders. Addressing these challenges requires a collaborative, interdisciplinary and problem-based approach, and critically, the time needed to explore a complex problem and develop a path towards solutions.

At CIFAR, we give our research programs the essential time and space for world-changing ideas to germinate and cross-pollinate.

Our programs are established for an initial period of five years, but many have continued for 15 or more years. This unique model has enabled significant advances, discoveries, policy shifts, and patents. Examples include key insights into the fast-moving fields of quantum computing and artificial intelligence, the discovery of dozens of fast radio bursts in the deep universe, the critical importance of the early years and full day kindergartens, the social determinants of health, and a deepening multidimensional understanding inequality. 

In 2002, we brought together a team of researchers from across sociology, political science, political philosophy, history, economics, and organizational, cultural and social psychology to share insights and create new understandings about how societal structures facilitate or inhibit the flourishing of a society. Over the ensuing 17 years, the interdisciplinary team in CIFAR’s Successful Societies program has been addressing critical questions about the factors needed for healthy and resilient communities, in particular - what are the drivers of inequality in our increasingly polarized and unequal world? 

The program, now in its final year, recently celebrated the culmination of their achievements in a capstone volume of Daedalus, which diagnoses the causes and consequences of inequality, and points to evidence-based solutions and recommendations for these multidimensional and thorny problems. This work is a testament to the magic that can happen when you provide an interdisciplinary team of outstanding investigators with the time and freedom to explore complex questions.

At CIFAR, our goal is to create the space where magic can happen, where discoveries and important insights will be made, both to advance our knowledge of the world and the universe and to make the world a better place.