Q&A: Alan Bernstein on globalizing CIFAR and the next frontiers for Canadian R&D

Lindsay Borthwick
July 13, 2022

Alan Bernstein is leaving CIFAR after 10 years as President and CEO of the Toronto-based research organization. The organization has been credited with seeding Canada’s flourishing artificial intelligence (AI) sector through its early support for research on deep learning. But for the past 40 years, it has also funded high-risk research on everything from consciousness to the extreme universe. 

Bernstein arrived at CIFAR after helming the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute. Under Bernstein’s leadership, CIFAR launched an early career researcher network, expanded its research programs through two Global Calls for Ideas, led Canada’s AI strategy, and morphed into a force for global science philanthropy.

As he prepares to leave the organization to incoming President and CEO Stephen Toope, Bernstein spoke with Research Money about the organization's accomplishments, Canada’s R&D opportunities, and lessons for policymakers from the pandemic.

Let’s start with the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, which was recently renewed and expanded by the federal government. What are the opportunities that Canada still has to seize in the global AI ecosystem?

One of my messages when I was in the United Kingdom recently last week, where I met with people from the Turing Institute and the British equivalent of ISED was that it is a mistake for countries to tackle the societal issues posed by AI one country at a time. Those issues are not going to be that different in the U.K. than they are in Canada, and the companies pushing the technology forward are by their very nature international if not global. So we need a global approach. We need to harmonize regulations so that companies don't go to the “country of least regulation.” 

Then in this country, there's the idea that we have all these nice little start-ups, but until we go from start-ups to scale-ups, it’s not working. While I agree that it is a challenge going to scale, we should not forget that the other area where we need improvement to increase productivity is to be more rapid adopters of new technology in our existing companies.  

What’s interesting is that historically Canada’s financial sector has been a slow adopter. But in AI, they have been the fastest adopters on the planet. So why is that? The answer, I think, is pretty obvious. All the banks had to do was walk up the street to MaRS and the University of Toronto, and all the talent was right there. They didn’t have to fly to Silicon Valley and convince a bunch of PhDs to move to Canada for a drop in pay. From a policy perspective, Canada should realize that the fact that this critical mass of talent was right here was a huge boon. 

Let’s turn to CIFAR’s other activities now. When you look back at the past decade at CIFAR, what are you most proud of?

There are three things. The first is the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program for early career investigators. They're really the people who make real transformative progress in science. They still have energy, neuroplasticity, naiveté, and they don't own the past. At the same time, I think that's also the hardest time in a young person's career, especially now. So we set up the Global Scholars program, which provides funding, mentorship, and makes early career researchers part of a global peer group of the world's most promising young scholars and scientists. 

The second one is the Global Call for Ideas, where we invite anybody in the world to come forward with a new idea for a new CIFAR program. We’ve launched eight new programs that way, and we’re in the middle of our third call now. In the old days, you would talk to the president or vice-presidents of CIFAR if you wanted a program. But the world has changed in the last 40 years. There's a lot more interest in being transparent and open and leveling the playing field for everybody, and that’s the idea of the Global Call. Now, all of a sudden, we're getting 100 proposals in through the door for a new CIFAR program. It's not just one scientist talking to the President. I think it has upped our game in an expected and an unexpected way: We got great ideas for new programs from really great people, and we're getting known because of that competition. 

The third one sounds almost silly to say but I think it’s important: Our move to the MaRS Discovery District. I say that because an organization's self image is very much determined by where you sit and where you think you belong. Since the move, we’re all sitting up a little straighter.

What work are you leaving unfinished?

CIFAR started as a Canadian research organization whose mission was really to build excellence in Canadian research. But over the past 40 years, the federal government has invested heavily in university research here in Canada. So when I became president, I felt our role had to evolve, and we’ve evolved it to focus on solving global problems of importance to science and to humanity. I like to think of CIFAR now not simply as a Canadian organization but as a Canadian-based research organization. 

That brings me to unfinished business. We have not yet secured significant funding from outside Canada. We’ve had research partnerships with organizations like UK Research and Innovation, Centre national de la recherche scientifique, the Wellcome Trust, and others, but it's not in a sustained way that truly reflects the global nature of this organization. I think we're on the verge of it, but I'm an optimist.

CIFAR has distinguished itself as a funder of long-term, high-risk fundamental research. Where are the opportunities for CIFAR to still make a difference?

It'll be my successor and others who decide what they feel are the next areas, but if I were to stay, I’d be asking how CIFAR taps into the talent and diversity of experiences in places like Africa and China. Or do we? I think that's a huge question. Because where you come from matters so much in terms of how you think about a problem. 

What’s next for Alan Bernstein?

I don't have a definitive plan. I'll see what comes up, if anything. Otherwise, I'm very happy to watch all my new granddaughters who were born during the pandemic grow.

Speaking of the pandemic, you were thrust into another role as part of the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force. What do you hope that policymakers take away from the pandemic about R&D?

One of the big lessons is how important fundamental science is for the future of humanity. COVID was, and potentially still is, an existential threat. We were saved by RNA vaccines, but they were not a slam dunk. There's a lot of sophisticated science that went into these RNA vaccines that was done for other reasons, of course, and came together to create the vaccines.  

The other is that how we teach science influences how the public reacts to pandemics or other crises. Some people have pointed to the about-face that science did on masks, for example, as evidence that science is fallible. But I think very strongly that the strength of science is that it changes its mind when there's new evidence. Science is anything but a rigid collection of facts. Yet, it is still taught that way. Instead, we need to teach science as a way of looking at the  world around us. I feel passionately that it's the best way we've come up with to understand our world. 


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