Address at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR)’s Four Questions to Change the World

This content is archived.

Toronto, Ontario, Thursday, November 6, 2014


Thank you for that warm and generous welcome. I am so pleased to be here with you this evening.

For more than 30 years, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research has been doing such important work. It was a privilege to have served as board chair in the latter half of the 1990s, and I would like to commend each of you and all those who have been such strong stewards of CIFAR, past and present.

This organization exists to connect top researchers from Canada and around the world, and I am simply delighted to see you moving into an ambitious new phase today.

This new phase is very exciting. I understand the focus will be on four specific programs with world-changing potential: potential new forms of solar energy conversion; the molecular processes underpinning life; the biological link between brain and consciousness, and the role of the microbiota in human health and evolution.

Like I said, it is an ambitious vision. Researchers supported by this institute are taking on complex, globally-significant challenges, and I would like to applaud your commitment to achieving excellence in such worthy research projects.

Let me talk about two major reasons why ambition and excellence are both so important.

First, as you know, there is no shortage of pressing challenges facing our world today. So why not support leading international researchers who want to tackle some of the biggest and most significant among them?

As a corollary to that: if we’re going to aim high in our choice of subject matter, let’s also aim high in our expectations.

Let’s aim for excellence. Let’s be global leaders.

Second, ambition and excellence are important because nothing attracts talent and resources like great success. In a globally competitive environment, a track record of ambition and achievement goes a long way towards creating future successes. It is a classic example of a virtuous circle.

I would also like commend your international outlook. The “Global Call for Ideas” that CIFAR issued for these projects resulted in hundreds of Letters of Intent from researchers based in eight countries across five continents.  

That is a wonderful response. It is so critical that we engage at the international level in our learning and innovation.

When looking for new ideas and insights, the best minds have always looked outward, to others in their communities, their countries and across international borders.

I was reminded of this during my recent State and official visits to Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium.

For example, my visit to Poland included a meeting at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, which is where Nicolaus Copernicus studied for several years prior to the publication of De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, or ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,’ in 1543.

What remains so instructive today is that the “Copernican Revolution” was very much a revolution across borders. It was not complete until Copernicus’ ideas had been tested, refined and improved by a succession of scientists including Tycho Brahe in Denmark, Johannes Kepler in Germany, Galileo Galilei in Italy and, finally, Sir Isaac Newton in England. And Copernicus himself learned a great deal from the criticisms of the Ptolemic model of the universe by the Arabic thinker Averroes, who lived in Córdoba, in present-day Spain.

Today, globalization, the Internet revolution and the vastly increased complexity and cost of research means that the benefits of working and learning across borders are even more pronounced.

To share a very recent example of this from Europe, my visit to Belgium included a fascinating stop at the Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre, or IMEC, a world-leading researcher in nanotechnology and photovoltaics. IMEC, which is hosting a number of leading Canadian researchers, is headquartered in Leuven, Belgium and has offices in the Netherlands, Taiwan, the United States, China, India and Japan.

This impressive centre is achieving some impressive results, particularly in the realm of health technology. Thanks to its willingness to engage international researchers and to support their ambitious work, IMEC is carving out an impressive niche in an important field of research.

I am inspired by such stories of collaboration and innovation, so let me say again how delighted I am to note CIFAR’s leadership in forming global research networks.

I would like to thank the staff and the volunteers who make CIFAR such a growing success. I would also like to extend special thanks to Mr. David Dodge, the outgoing chair of the Board of Directors, for his impressive contribution to this organization.

At the same time, let us also welcome Ms. Barbara Stymiest, the incoming board chair, and wish her well with her new responsibilities.

Thank you both for your service, and my thanks to all of you for the important work you do.