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Science Going Global

Many of the great challenges facing the world today, such as finding ways to cure chronic diseases and address climate change, will require that scientists engage in multidisciplinary and global projects, and one possible model for these kinds of efforts may be the virtual global network, according to a commentary in Nature.

The Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), provides an example for how such networks might work, CIFAR President Alan Bernstein explains.

Today, not many scientists "venture beyond their scientific fields, campuses, or national funding programs," Bernstein explains, and young investigators find their creative impulses constrained while they work in large teams that are controlled by senior researchers.

Bernstein sees CIFAR, which launched three decades ago, as an effort not to reproduce a university campus, like other research institutes, but to create a virtual academy.

CIFAR does not award grants, but with its government-and-privately-funded budget of C$17M ($16.8M), it convenes meetings twice a year for 12 research networks that include nearly 400 fellows and advisers from 103 institutions in 16 different countries.

Each of the programs is overseen by an external advisory board that helps to choose members and to direct the research, and they are reviewed every five years by an external panel based on their scientific excellence, synergy, and impact.

"The institute's recipe for success has three key ingredients: framing the right question, identifying the right researchers and leader, and supporting a network for long enough to overcome disciplinary and cultural barriers," Bernstein explains.

More must be done to bring young investigators into global, multidisciplinary projects, he adds, because they currently face many obstacles, such as low grant success rates and a shortage of academic posts, and young scientists in the developing world have an even more difficult time, due to their remoteness and scarcity of resources.

CIFAR already has brought in 24 young researchers into its existing programs, and it has launched the CIFAR Global Academy, which will include support visits, meetings, and programs to help emerging scientists get their careers moving.

"We hope that other organizations will work with us to explore new partnerships and models of interaction across disciplines, nations and generations," Bernstein says.