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Margin Notes

Have a complex question of importance to humanity?

Now’s your chance to ask CIFAR to investigate.


It’s an intriguing invitation: the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research has issued its first-ever call for proposals for new research ideas that address “a complex question of importance to humanity.” My immediate response was to think of something snide, like “Why the Kardashians?” but CIFAR deserves a more serious reply.

For those who don’t know it, CIFAR is one of those rare private, not-for-profit research institutes in Canada not directly affiliated with a university. As I’ve written before, what they manage to accomplish on their $16 million annual budget is astounding. That money funds 12 wide-ranging interdisciplinary programs, among them: Cosmology and Gravity; Child and Brain Development; Earth System Evolution; Institutions, Organizations and Growth; Nanoelectronics; and Social Interactions, Society and Well-being.

Today, nearly 400 researchers in 17 countries participate in CIFAR’s multidisciplinary, global research networks. Since the institute’s inception in 1982, 14 Nobel Laureates have been associated with it. CIFAR’s president is Alan Bernstein, who is well-known in the research community as the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research from 2000 to 2007.

CIFAR holds a number of outreach activities each year. In 2010 and 2011, that included a series of public events called the Next Big Question, where CIFAR researchers were asked to make the case for why their topic of exploration represented the Next Big Question facing our world. Here is just a sampling of what they debated:

  • What does the future hold for our planet?
  • What makes a society resilient?
  • Where can quantum computing carry us?
  • Can we sustain the information revolution?
  • What is the fate of the Universe?
  • How can political institutions best promote peace and prosperity?

Well, now it’s your turn. What is your “complex question of importance to society?” For serious responses to CIFAR, you’ll need to hurry: letters of intent are due June 7. In the meantime, let us know what burning question you’d love to have investigated. Serious, and not so serious, replies welcomed.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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