Great minds think anew

November 11, 2005

Brilliance is a group effort at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, says Chaviva Hosek

Human ingenuity has devised formulas, algorithms and operating manuals for all manner of wondrous inventions, yet no reliable blueprint exists for creating knowledge. It is an odd and humbling fact, especially for the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR). For more than two decades we have been harnessing the collective capacity of brilliant people to make quantum leaps of understanding.

If there is a formula for our success, it can only be that we do not have one. The CIAR understands that there is no rigid prescription for innovation, and that major advances are sparked and nurtured in many different ways. Fundamentally, we believe in the power of collective genius. Out of that belief comes an aversion to imposing mechanistic rules on the research process and a firm commitment to bringing together top thinkers with different perspectives to work in the shared pursuit of knowledge. Whether identifying a new research area or evaluating a long-standing programme, the CIAR's watchwords are flexibility, collaboration and patience. The institute works with leading academics, over many iterations and sometimes long periods of time, to define the core challenge and central questions of a research possibility and to determine if an opportunity exists to create globally significant new knowledge.

The CIAR's Successful Societies Program is a good example. It was created to explore the social processes underlying collective health and human development, and simply defining the scheme took almost three years, eight major workshops and the input of as many as 150 experts.

We also have the ability to move quickly. The CIAR's Genetic Networks Program was conceived and launched within a year to study complex gene interactions, based on small discussions and one large workshop.

Because genuinely new ideas seldom follow a linear path, the flexibility continues after CIAR projects are officially established. After more than ten years of study, our Superconductivity Program expanded its agenda to include novel behaviours of electrons in solids. It is now called the Quantum Materials Program, and has developed its own unique way of working, centred on two large annual meetings. The CIAR's Neural Computation and Adaptive Perception Program, which is studying how the brain learns in an effort to engineer advanced computer vision systems, operates with an entirely different rhythm. There are no standardised workshop frequencies, sizes or agenda structures, and each research group is encouraged to find its own optimally effective way of working.

As a private not-for-profit entity, funded through private donations and government grants, the CIAR has the freedom to be flexible and creative, as well as to explore questions not yet well enough articulated to qualify for traditional funding. It uses this freedom to create the most advantageous conditions for collective work. Some have described this as a distinctly Canadian approach. This is not to say that the CIAR is a strictly national body. On the contrary, it is a genuinely international institution, with some 250 members representing more than 80 institutions in 13 countries.

Over the past 24 years, the CIAR has had an enormous influence. Its researchers developed three of the five major hypotheses driving Earth systems research; revolutionised the study of economic growth with "new growth theory"; demonstrated a link between socioeconomic factors and the health of individuals and populations; and mounted a compelling challenge to Darwin's genetic "tree of life" model.

The CIAR understands that humanity needs to keep asking bigger and harder questions. That is why the institute measures its success in creating new frameworks of understanding and breakthrough ideas that result in a shift in accepted thinking. To stimulate and cultivate such ideas, the CIAR has cast formula aside and developed its own distinctive method for harnessing collective intellectual capacity. In doing so, it is propelling Canada and the world to new heights of exploration.

Chaviva Hošek is president of the CIAR.  
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