It’s only impossible until it’s not.
CIFAR believes in bold ideas. In high risk and high reward.
For 40 years, we have convened the greatest minds in science to solve the most pressing, complex questions facing humanity.
Our global community of researchers has transformed the world around us — from launching a revolution in AI, to changing how we think about our health and the critical early years of our lives.
Take a look back at the key milestones that make up our 40 years of impact, and join us as we look ahead to the next 40.
July 1, 1982
CIFAR opens its doors
Spurred by an idea from John Leyerle, the University of Toronto's Dean of Graduate Studies, for a Canadian hub for advanced research, The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR) celebrates its official opening. In 2006, the acronym would change to CIFAR. Dr. Fraser Mustard is appointed CIFAR’s first President & CEO and the first programs begin to take shape.
The goal is simple, yet revolutionary and profound for Canadian science: "foster basic, conceptual research of high quality at an advanced level across the full spectrum of knowledge in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and life sciences."
Over the next 40 years, this simple model will prove to have a remarkable impact on science, on Canada and on the world.
CIFAR receives its first donations
In 1982 and 1983, the institute's mission attracts its first three donors: Andrés Wines Limited (now Andrew Peller Limited), Walter and Duncan Gordon of the Gordon Foundation, and Spar Aerospace (now MDA), in support of CIFAR's first program. The Government of Ontario also provides its very first financial support to CIFAR.
Planting research roots
In one of the earliest meetings of CIFAR's Research Council, members discuss a cutting-edge theme area: "an ambitious research program centred on neuroscience and vision, sensory perception and robotics." This will shape the first program launched the following year.
July 1, 1983
CIFAR announces its first formal appointment of a Senior Fellow, Dr. William Tatton, a neurologist at the Playfair Institute of the Toronto Western Hospital.
A new age of AI is born
CIFAR’s first program launches: Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Society. For the next decade, researchers make significant contributions to the fields of computer vision and knowledge representation. Among the first cohort of researchers is Geoffrey Hinton, whose research, decades later, will ultimately lead to deep learning and the current revolution in AI.
The program is the beginning of CIFAR’s role in AI leadership in Canada and the world.
Read more about our AI leadership.
Read more about how our programs evolved over the last 40 years.
CIFAR receives its first international funding from the U.S. based Rockefeller Foundation
CIFAR is a catalyst for the Canadarm2
The Canadarm2 aboard the International Space Station is recognized around the world as a symbol of Canadian technological ingenuity. What’s not widely known is how CIFAR played a role in getting it up there. In 1985, CIFAR President Dr. Fraser Mustard makes a case to the House of Commons that Canada needs to consolidate its space-based efforts into one agency. He "stressed the importance of artificial intelligence and robotics research not just for the space station project, where it would be vital, but also for the both the economy and Canadian society...” A year later, the Canadian Space Agency is born, which will lead to the deployment of the Canadarm2 in 2001. Read more about the Canadarm2.
CIFAR begins positioning Canada as a global hub for AI
CIFAR’s Artificial Intelligence & Robotics program launches a unique initiative to strengthen interaction between universities and industry on R&D in artificial intelligence by helping to establish the Pre-Competitive Applied Research Network (Precarn). It helps to create numerous partnerships between corporations, research institutes and government, enabling companies to bring new technologies to market faster.
The beginnings of lasting, impactful partnerships
Manulife makes its first gift to CIFAR in support of a new Population Health program, which is foundational in establishing the social determinants of health. Read more about CIFAR’s Health Breakthroughs.
RBC makes its first gift and ultimately becomes CIFAR’s largest financial institution donor. Read more about RBC's recent support of CIFAR's EDI initiatives.
Reva Gerstein becomes the first woman to chair CIFAR's Board of Directors.
Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow joins the Advisory Committee for the Economic Growth & Policy program
Arrow was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (the Nobel for Economics) in 1972, shared jointly with John R. Hicks for "pioneering contributions to general economic equilibrium theory and welfare theory."
Read about the 20 Nobel Laureates who have contributed to CIFAR's research excellence over the past 40 years.
Read about other prestigious award recipients in our community in our latest Impact Report and through our CIFAR Fellow bios.
Why are Some People Healthy and Others Not? transforms how we think about health
This groundbreaking book crystallizes the findings of a five-year CIFAR-led study that probed the social, environmental and economic dimensions of human health. Its holistic conception of health informs social and health policy world-wide, and persists to this day. The book's impact is discussed in the 2012 issue of REACH.
"The book's impact has been remarkable, not merely in academic citations but through its authors' subsequent work and strategic positions in Canadian health research organizations. The concept of 'Population Health' has become part of our shared intellectual heritage."
Evans, Robert G., et al. “Why Are Some Books Important (and Others Not)?” Canadian Journal of Public Health / Revue Canadienne de Sante'e Publique, vol. 101, no. 6, Canadian Public Health Association, 2010, pp. 433-35.
Stefan Dupré becomes president
Dr. Dupré was previously the dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto; founding chair of the Ontario Council of University Affairs; National Research Council of Canada member; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada member; and past president of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada.
Snowball Earth theory reveals planet's past
Paul Hoffman (University of Victoria) and Daniel Schrag (Harvard University) in CIFAR's program in Earth System Evolution, change the prevalent thinking with their "Snowball Earth" theory. They find geological evidence showing Earth was covered in ice 600-700 million years ago, and that it emerged from its frozen shell as a result of extreme greenhouse conditions caused by a massive buildup of carbon dioxide. Learn more.
General Purpose Technologies and Economic Growth: An academic mainstay for years to come
Fellows in the Economic Growth & Policy program produce a volume of collected essays edited by Elhanan Helpman (Harvard University). The book becomes the standard reference on the role of technology in the economy and continues to have significant influence on our thinking about the nature and impacts of technological change today.
Early Years Report transforms how we think about the first five years of life
The Early Years Report, led by Dr. Fraser Mustard, presents a transformative series of recommendations that lay the foundations for full-day kindergarten and parenting centres. Researchers, including neuroscientists, psychologists and geneticists, in CIFAR's Child & Brain Development program are carrying on Dr. Mustard's important legacy today, providing more evidence for this critical period of our lives on optimal brain development and a lifelong trajectory of wellbeing.
THE NEXT BIG QUESTIONS
Chaviva Hošek becomes CIFAR's president & CEO
Prior to Hošek's appointment, she served as the director of policy and research in the Prime Minister's Office; the minister of housing for the Province of Ontario; president and executive member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women; and a professor of English literature at the University of Toronto. Under her leadership, CIFAR expands its investigation of early childhood development while mobilizing new knowledge for greater societal impact.
"Under Chaviva's leadership over the last 11 years, the Institute has developed as Canada's premier centre for advanced research, linking top Canadian researchers to each other and to the world's best."
David Dodge, CIFAR Board of Directors, former Governor of the Bank of Canada
CIFAR turns 20:
The Next Big Questions
As part of its 20-year anniversary celebration, CIFAR launches the Young Explorers Prize, given to the top 20 scientists under 40 in Canada. Victoria M. Kaspi, now the director of the Gravity & the Extreme Universe program, was among its recipients.
The award is a testament to CIFAR’s focus on the next generation of researchers for years to come, including the launch of the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program in 2016.
Read the of REACH to find out more.
"When I look at the people who have won our Young Explorers Prize, I am filled with hope and excitement."
Chaviva Hošek, CIFAR President and CEO (2001-2012)
CIFAR's talent leads Globe and Mail's Starting from Zero series on child development
Canadian national paper the Globe and Mail publishes a series on early child development, Starting from Zero, heavily featuring CIFAR researchers in the Experience-Based Brain and Biological Development (now renamed Child & Brain Development). Read more in the Globe and Mail.
CIFAR researcher Avner Greif introduces novel ‘Game Theory’ application
Avner Greif, who was a fellow in the Institutions, Organizations & Growth program, introduces game theory into the study of economic history, and shows how to explain the emergence of institutions and their decline as a result of strategic interactions between economic and political factors. His book, Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade becomes required reading in the field.
Roger Myerson awarded Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences
Roger B. Myerson, former advisor for the program Institutions, Organizations & Growth, shares the prize with Leonid Hurwicz and Eric S. Maskin "for having laid the foundations of mechanism design theory." A major breakthrough in the modern economic analysis of institutions and markets, it has had lasting influence in the design of economic policies around the world.
CIFAR researchers help find two-million-year-old life under ice
Researchers in CIFAR’s Earth System Evolution program help discover life in a lake that has been trapped under a glacier for nearly two million years. This discovery hints at the possibility of life in other inhospitable environments, such as Mars or Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.
Photo: Mars as seen by the ESA Rosetta spacecraft in 2007 (credit: BY-SA IGO 3.0)
CIFAR launches Junior Fellow Academy
Continuing CIFAR's commitment to fostering the next generation of innovative thinkers, the Junior Fellow Academy, which ran until 2015, offered early-career researchers the unique opportunity to participate in CIFAR's global research network and be mentored by some of the world's best researchers. This program paved the way for the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program which launched in 2016.
"It helped me to develop my thinking around novel and important points of intersection between my own work and research pursued by other researchers which, I am sure, I would not have otherwise recognized."
Dr. Arjumand Siddiqi, Professor and Division Head of Epidemiology, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Population Health Equity (CIFAR Junior Fellow, Successful Societies, 2008-2009, and Associate Fellow, Successful Societies, 2010-2012)
“CI(F)AR’s 20th anniversary is something that all Canadians should celebrate. Our country is home to a unique organization that is respected by the world’s greatest thinkers. There is no better way to mark this occasion than by recognizing the work and the promise of our country’s best young researchers.”
Thomas E. Kierans, CIFAR Chairman (2009)
Legacy: CIFAR receives its first endowment gift
Philanthropist Beryl Ivey names CIFAR as a beneficiary of her estate. In life, Ivey was known for her curiosity and pursuit of excellence. Through her legacy gift, Ivey remains invested in addressing the most important questions facing science and humanity.
AI world standard: CIFAR-10 dataset
The CIFAR-10 dataset is a collection of photographs that can be used to train machine learning and computer vision algorithms. CIFAR-10 and later CIFAR-100 became a world standard dataset and one of the most widely used datasets for machine learning research, containing 60,000 colour images.
Human splicing code is deciphered by CIFAR researcher Brendan Frey
Brendan Frey, who was part of two CIFAR programs — Genetic Networks and Learning in Machines & Brains — translates a splicing code in genes. By combining the power of computing with biological analysis, his team deciphers the biological instructions, or “splicing code,” that cells use to rearrange gene parts, providing new insights into the root causes of genetically based diseases.
Google uses method invented by CIFAR researcher Yann LeCun to launch Street View
Google uses convolutional neural networks, an avenue of deep learning developed by Yann LeCun, program co-director of CIFAR’s Learning in Machines & Brains program, to blur faces and car license plates in its Street View application. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the U.S. Defense Department, also uses it to detect large obstacles from afar. Read more in The Economist.
CIFAR co-hosts colloquium on early adversity
CIFAR and the National Academy of Sciences co-host a prestigious colloquium on “Biological Embedding of Early Social Adversity.” Researchers in CIFAR’s Experience-Based Brain & Biological Development (now renamed Child & Brain Development) program lead the conference, sharing their insights into how early social and cultural experiences shape the trajectory of neurocognitive development. The colloquium leads to a PNAS volume of research examining how and why experiences interact with biology, marking clear directions for the field of developmental neuroscience.
Exploring the impossible: CIFAR researchers Aephraim Steinberg and Krister Schalm first to track photons on quantum journey
In an experiment previously believed to be impossible, researchers including CIFAR Fellow Aephraim Steinberg and Junior Fellow Krister Shalm of the Quantum Information Processing program, become the first to track the average paths of photons passing through a double-slit experiment. This experiment offers insights into the dynamics that may drive the development of quantum computers.
CIFAR researchers find new protein that helps photosynthesis
Patrick Keeling and Claudio Slamovits, who were fellows in the Integrated Microbial Biodiversity program, discover a new protein in a marine microbial organism that has the capacity to harvest the energy from sunlight. The discovery could be used to help build artificial photosynthetic systems, such as those that convert solar energy into electrical energy.
Photo: Oxyrrhis marina, the marine microbe in which Keeling and Slamovits discovered the light-harvesting protein.
Dr. Alan Bernstein, O.C. becomes president & CEO
Dr. Bernstein, a leader in health research and science policy, was previously the executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, inaugural president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the director of research for the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute.
His leadership initiates a refreshed vision for CIFAR, as it enters its fourth decade, emphasizing an outward and international focus — sharing new knowledge with humanity, and advancing interdisciplinary dialogue to solve the world’s greatest and most complex challenges.
"I have long admired CIFAR's focus on identifying and supporting research that drives change and has the potential to improve human health, the environment, societies, technology and our understanding of the universe... For the past 30 years, CIFAR has been one of Canada's leading global research assets. I am honoured to be selected to succeed Chaviva Hošek as its next president and CEO."
CIFAR Distinguished Fellow John Helliwell co-authors UN’s first World Happiness Report
The United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes the first World Happiness Report, co-authored by CIFAR Distinguished Fellow, John Helliwell, then co-director of CIFAR’s Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program. The report measures a variety of psychological, economic, medical and social factors, and continues to be issued annually, incorporating data from 150 countries. In 2021, Helliwell shared his insights on the previous year’s report and COVID-19’s effects on happiness.
CIFAR launches its first Global Call for Ideas
CIFAR launches its first Global Call for Ideas — inviting scientists and scholars from across the globe to submit proposals for new research programs. Research questions must be bold, ambitious and high risk, and include top investigators from around the world regardless of discipline. CIFAR’s first Global Call leads to nearly 300 Letters of Intent, submitted from 28 countries on five continents, ultimately reinforcing that the Global Call — and the CIFAR model more broadly — are unique and much-needed mechanisms for fostering interdisciplinary collaboration across borders.
Launched at a time when the world needs more international collaborative tools and room for dialogue on some of the world’s most complex challenges, CIFAR is positioned as a much-needed knowledge convenor and broker.
The Global Call leads to four groundbreaking new research programs, launched in 2015: Bio-inspired Solar Energy; Brain, Mind, & Consciousness; Humans & the Microbiome; and Molecular Architecture of Life.
Supporting and promoting the work of CIFAR in his role as Governor General of Canada, David Johnston becomes the first Viceregal Patron of CIFAR. Johnston was Governor General of Canada (2010-2017) and past Chair of the CIFAR Board of Directors (1994-1999).
"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."
The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada (2010–2017), Viceregal Patron (2014–2017), Chairman Emeritus
An historic gift: The Azrieli Foundation donates $10 million to launch the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program
The landmark gift is the largest in CIFAR’s history, enabling the launch of the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program and the Azrieli Program in Brain, Mind & Consciousness, a cutting-edge research program that brings together leading researchers from around the world to explore the biological basis of human consciousness.
Through the CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholars program, the gift provides funding and support to help early-career scholars build their research networks, fund their research programs and develop essential skills to become the world’s next generation of research leaders. To date, CIFAR has named 109 global scholars, some of whom have become CIFAR fellows and many have become leaders in their fields.
"The Azrieli Foundation seeks opportunities to foster excellence in science, investing in the work of both outstanding senior researchers and early-career scholars. CIFAR’s multi-disciplinary and global approach to addressing the world’s most complex issues makes them a perfect home for the collaborative research that can bring about breakthroughs in brain research."
Dr. Naomi Azrieli, Chair and CEO of the Azrieli Foundation
CIFAR’s Victoria M. Kaspi becomes first woman to win Canada’s top science prize
Dr. Kaspi, program director of the Gravity & the Extreme Universe program, becomes the first woman to be awarded the $1 million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal.
In 2019, Barbara Sherwood Lollar, co-director of the Earth4D program, becomes the second woman to receive the Herzberg Medal.
‘Determination to have an impact on the world’: CIFAR hosts Forum on the Well-Being of the World’s Children
CIFAR convenes nearly 100 policy-makers, practitioners, and researchers at Canada House in London, England, to identify opportunities for a new research agenda around child well-being. “It builds on our internationally recognized role as a global convener, and combines it with our growing international reach and determination to have an impact on the world,” said Dr. Alan Bernstein, President & CEO of CIFAR. The Honourable Louise Arbour, former UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on International Migration; former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and Sir Mark Walport, then Chief Science Advisor to the UK government, serve as co-chairs of the event.
CIFAR leads world’s first national AI strategy
The Government of Canada asks CIFAR to develop and lead the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, the world’s first national AI strategy and a $125-million investment in machine learning research, training and innovation.
Working with Canada’s three national AI institutes, Mila in Montreal, the Vector Institute in Toronto, and Amii in Edmonton, CIFAR creates the Canada CIFAR AI Chairs program which attracts and retains over 100 of the world’s top AI researchers to Canada, fostering research, innovation and collaboration in AI to advance ideas reshaping our world.
Today, more than 100 Canada CIFAR AI Chairs are training the next generation of AI scientists, advancing research over a range of fundamental and applied AI topics from drug discovery and machine learning for health, autonomous vehicles, materials discovery, human-AI interaction, natural language prediction, and more. Read more.
A new chapter: CIFAR moves to innovation hub MaRS Discovery District
After 19 years at 180 Dundas Street West in Toronto, Canada, CIFAR moves its headquarters to its current location in the MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub located at the corner of College Street and University Avenue.
CIFAR launches second Global Call for Ideas
The second Global Call receives 91 Letters of Intent with team members from 51 countries and 6 continents. It leads to four new programs: Boundaries, Membership, & Belonging; Earth4D: Subsurface Science & Exploration; Fungal Kingdom: Threats & Opportunities; and Innovation, Equity, & the Future of Prosperity.
CIFAR announces first cohort of Canada CIFAR AI Chairs
At December 2018’s AICan event, which brings together industry and research leaders in AI, CIFAR announces the first cohort of 29 Canada CIFAR AI Chairs. The program is the cornerstone of the CIFAR Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, recruiting the world’s leading AI researchers to Canada, while retaining our existing top talent. The program provides long-term, dedicated research funding to support their research programs and help them train the next generation of AI leaders.
"CIFAR is the glue for my favorite network of leading researchers in AI."
Hugo Larochelle, Associate Fellow, Learning in Machines & Brains and Canada CIFAR AI Chair, Pan-Canadian AI Strategy
Solving cosmic mysteries: CHIME discovers second repeating fast radio burst
The CIFAR-supported CHIME telescope in British Columbia continues to make discoveries, particularly with respect to the puzzling phenomenon of fast radio bursts, which can tell us a great deal about what is happening in faraway galaxies. Read more.
CIFAR fellows and AI forerunners win ACM A.M. Turing Award, the “Nobel Prize for Computing”
CIFAR Fellows Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun are jointly awarded the prestigious A.M. Turing Award for their development of deep learning. Bengio, Hinton and LeCun came together at CIFAR in 2004 when Hinton founded what is now the Learning in Machines & Brains program. The fellows were interested in an artificial intelligence approach using neural networks, which are loosely modeled on the way the human brain works. Their work together led to many advances, including the breakthrough AI technique called deep learning, which is now integral to computer vision, speech recognition, natural language processing, and robotics.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
On the cusp of 40 years, CIFAR looks to be even bolder, asking scientists: what is the future of being human?
Alan Bernstein becomes a trusted voice during the COVID-19 pandemic
A recognized leader in health research and a celebrated scientist, Dr. Alan Bernstein calls for the creation of the federal Vaccine Task Force which provides scientific advice on which vaccines to buy for Canadians, provides an important voice on COVID-19 related topics including manufacturing vaccines in Canada, and advocates for international equity for vaccines in low- and middle-income countries. He appears in more than 1,000 media stories nationally and internationally and testifies before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health.
CIFAR donors and researchers rally to fight COVID-19
CIFAR announces the COVID-19 Action Fund. With the support of Manulife, Max Bell Foundation, and many individual donors, CIFAR takes immediate action to bring together world-leading experts to collaborate on numerous COVID-19 scientific efforts — from quick response research grants for health and well-being or AI and COVID-19, to the Expert Advisory Group on Society, Technology and Ethics in a Pandemic (STEP).
With the help of the COVID-19 Action Fund, researchers across CIFAR’s programs came together to take action, pivoting their work towards fighting, and understanding the many potential consequences of, the pandemic. To name a few: CIFAR Fellows and Canada CIFAR AI Chairs investigated how COVID-19 affected world happiness, while members in the Humans & the Microbiome program studied how the virus altered our microbiome. Read more about the many groundbreaking COVID-19 research conducted by our CIFAR community.
CIFAR launches first Action Plan on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
CIFAR’s board of directors commits to an action plan that commits the organization to take deliberate action to create a model for international research excellence and collaboration that embraces equitable, diverse and inclusive practices.
In support of prosperity
The Max Bell Foundation becomes the first donor to support CIFAR's new Innovation, Equity & the Future of Prosperity program, which takes a multidisciplinary and cross-national look at how, why, and when the benefits of innovation aren't always broadly shared.
CIFAR Global Call for Ideas
of Being Human
The most important question of our time: CIFAR launches third Global Call for Ideas
The Future of Being Human is the first thematic Global Call in CIFAR's history, challenging researchers to propose bold ideas that explore the long-term intersection of humans, science and technology, social and cultural systems, and our environment. CIFAR receives 99 proposals from more than a dozen countries around the world. Read more on why the future of being human is the most important question of our time.
CIFAR at 40 | The Next 40
As we celebrate our 40 years of impact, learn about the transformative work being conducted by our research community.
Stay tuned — CIFAR's new programs coming out of our Global Call for Ideas will be announced March 2023.
CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.