Alan Bernstein takes over this week as president of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a highly respected non-profit organization that brings together top scientists and scholars from Canada and around the world to collaborate on fields as diverse as quantum materials, successful societies and neural computation. Dr. Bernstein is the former head of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal granting agency, and most recently ran the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York. He spoke to The Globe and Mail's Anne McIlroy about innovation and collaboration.
Q. We hear a lot of talk about the shift to a knowledge-based economy. Where is Canada on that transition?
A. There are many examples of Canadian companies that are based on science, new technologies and ideas. But, over all, it's clear that Canada's economy remains largely based on natural resources and manufacturing. Unlike most other developed economies, we are fortunate that our abundance of natural resources gives us both the time and money to transition to a knowledge-based economy. That's the good news. The bad news is that, because of our abundant natural resources, we do not feel the same pressure to innovate as other countries.
Q. Will Canada be able compete with countries like India and China, which, as you've previously noted, are acquiring enormous amounts of foreign capital through their lower labour costs and are investing in science and technology?
A. I view China and India as wonderful opportunities for collaboration. I believe we need to approach these countries as partners, not competitors. Canada has the opportunity to position our country as the destination of choice for the world's best minds. And we need to encourage young Canadians to seek experiences abroad. Look at Brazil. They have just invested $2-billion to send young Brazilians abroad to further their education in science and they are putting lots of money on the table to make sure some of them come back.
Q. What did you learn about innovation from your time in New York?
A. I learned several things, and one of them is that the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the United States are outstanding. They follow scientific developments, almost to the minute, and they know who to invest in. In Canada, our scientists, engineers and scholars are as good as anyone in creating new knowledge. But, unlike their counterparts in the U.S., they haven't been trained to create companies or new products. We need to develop entrepreneurs and venture capital investors that are as good as their counterparts in the Canadian oil and mining sectors.
Q. Maybe CIFAR should set up a research program on innovation?
A. It's on my bucket list. Governments everywhere are talking about innovation, not just here in Canada. What are the magic ingredients that make innovation happen? What is the role of government in stimulating innovation? One of CIFAR's great strengths over the past 30 years has been its uncanny knack of identifying highly important, interesting questions and then bringing the very top people from around the world to study them. I wouldn't want CIFAR simply to write another report on innovation in Canada. But it would be interesting to bring together an international group of scholars, scientists, business people and policy makers to have a sustained, focused discussion about innovation, not for Canada, but for the developed and developing worlds.
The interview has been condensed and edited.