Alan Bernstein, head of the Canadian Institute for Advanced­ Research, calls for greater involvement from the private sector to ensure our nation stays abreast of rapid advances in the technology revolution­ sweeping the globe. 

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) is widely considered the jewel in the crown of Canadian research bodies. Not because of the modest $16 million annual budget of this independent, non-profit institute but because of its far-reaching mission and the stellar researchers it brings together.

Founded in 1982, CIFAR’s mission is “to create transformative knowledge that addresses questions of importance to the world.” As a virtual institute it enlists nearly 340 top researchers from 16 countries to participate in 11 interdisciplinary research programs. They attend CIFAR-organized meetings several times a year to share research with each other and generally collaborate. Nearly two-thirds are based in Canada.

Among CIFAR’s 11 research programs are child and brain development, genetic networks and quantum information science. Four new programs are being phased in this year after a global call for ideas that yielded more than 250 applications; three have a chemistry component.

Since May 2012, Alan Bernstein, 67, has been president and CEO of CIFAR. With a PhD in molecular genetics from the University of Toronto, Bernstein is well-known in biomedical circles for his contributions to the study of stem cells, cancer and hematopoiesis, which is the formation of blood cells. Bernstein is also an experienced research administrator, having overseen the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York. He has repeatedly said publicly that global research networks are the modus operandi for science today.    

Why are global research networks becoming so dominant?

One reason is that it is now doable because of communications technology. The second reason is that the kinds of questions that increasingly are addressed by the research community are, by their very nature, global — from global warming to terrorism to economic interdependence to cancer. There are very few problems that are uniquely Canadian or belong uniquely to any one country. 

So if the way that research is done is changing immensely, has science policy kept up with that change?

I think every country, every funder, is wrestling with this question of how to adjust and anticipate change to encourage the directions in which you want to go. Every country is going through these sorts of growing pains to keep pace with how science is changing and how the nature of research is changing.

In advanced Western democracies like Canada should there be some sort of national dialogue about our higher-level science policy goals?

A I think the national dialogue is probably more important than the outcome — having a robust discussion about why we fund research in this country, what our country’s expectations are, or should be. Those are all very, very useful conversations that help us to focus as a nation. In the transition from the Medical Research Council to the CIHR there were some very tough discussions. I think those discussions were extremely useful to provide clarity both for lawmakers and policymakers in Ottawa but also for the health research community.

Do you think that large numbers of the public would have any interest in that?

I do, actually, if the discussion is trained on challenges facing the planet, whether it’s global warming, sustainable forms of energy, terrorism, aging societies, income gaps, or emerging diseases like Ebola. For issues like that I think the public is very engaged, actually. Probably more engaged than the academic community.

It’s got to be about engagement. In the past scientists had a view that the public was like an empty glass waiting to be filled up with all the knowledge that the scientific community has developed. The current view — and I think the proper view — is you need to engage the public in the process of science and in the outcomes of science. And the public is amazingly smart. 

In Canada we seem to have a dearth of private sector involvement and particularly of philanthropic involvement. Do you think that’s an issue in all three areas: public engagement, the determination of science policy and research funding?

I think there is a structural problem in the country. It goes beyond engagement of the public; it’s our nation’s investments in research. We are one of the major oil and gas producers now in the world and, no secret, there is a big push to develop sustainable forms of energy. Where will Canada be if some smart kid in Silicon Valley comes up with a way of harnessing energy from the sun in an effective way? There needs to be some mechanism which probably involves government — but not only government, but a partnership with the private sector — to anticipate what we can expect are profound changes in technology of the kind we’ve seen in the past 20 years. 
In Canada we’ve been watching this technology revolution more than actually leading it and yet we have a top-notch education system and we have significant investments in research from government. You need to figure out how to get the private sector more engaged. It’s a tough one.  

Is there anything that you would like to add about the overarching question of science culture in Canada?

Yes. The Council of Canadian Academies came out with a report that was fairly positive about the state of science culture in Canada. I don’t entirely share that view. Starting with our government, there are very few scientists in government, less than a handful in the Senate and the House. And so lawmakers really don’t have any appreciation of not just scientific fact but of the process of science and the timelines and the cost and the benefits of having a science culture. 

I think that’s largely true also in the private sector. I think that’s a huge problem. We don’t have the kind of start-up culture that you see in the United States that was driven by science and engineering. That spills over into venture capital, which again is deeply lacking in a knowledgeable venture capital community that understands the science, the risks, the timelines, the people doing science in this country. 

And the public, again, I would say by and large Canadians see science as a collection of facts, still. And it’s not. Science is a messy process of looking at the world and it is the best process we’ve come up with of looking at the world around us. It’s transformed our world for the better, in every way. We don’t teach it that way and I think that’s reflected in all the things we’ve been talking about. We have a long way to go. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.