The official address of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIAR) is 180 Dundas St. West, in downtown Toronto.
But, as CIAR President Chaviva Hosek is quick to point out, this is simply the administrative headquarters. The real focus is decidedly elsewhere.
"You can't find the work of the CIAR in one place," she says. "And that was our founding goal - to answer the toughest research questions by creating collaborative teams from the smartest minds in the world, no matter where they were."
This focus on interdisciplinary research is at the core of the CIAR's work. A not-for-profit organization funded through a mix of government investment and private support, Hosek emphasizes that the CIAR is much more than an agency that awards money for research.
"CIAR is really an intellectual matchmaker. When someone comes to us with an idea, we ask, 'Who are the smartest people on the planet in this area?' and we try to put them together," says Hosek, who was appointed CIAR president in 2001 after a career that included postings as senior policy advisor to former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, minister of housing in David Peterson's Ontario government and a professor of English at the University of Toronto.
The CIAR organizes its work by way of an evolving set of about 10 programs. The current roster includes Cosmology & Gravity, Earth System Evolution, Evolutionary Biology, Experience-based Brain and Biological Development, Institutions, Organizations & Growth, Nanoelectronics, Neural Computation & Adaptive Perception, Quantum Information Processing, Quantum Materials, and Successful Societies.
Each area is led by a program director and includes between 15 and 40 scholars. Groups meet two or three times a year for intensive discussions on their research topic and then group members pursue different paths related to the research.
These discussions consistently produce impressive results. The Population Health group, for example, which concluded 15 years of work in 2003, received international recognition for synthesizing knowledge from a wide range of disciplines and developing an acclaimed model of the determinants of health.
CIAR programs have always had strong representation from the University of Toronto. While U of T's award-winning team of chemist Geoffrey Ozin and physicist Sajeev John have worked together for years, Ozin says that "being part of the CIAR's nanoscience team has really helped to cement our collaboration and give it longevity." Late last year, they won the inaugural Brockhouse Canada Prize from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for creating the world's first self-assembled photonic band gap material capable of trapping light.
"CIAR is an elite research institute," says Ozin. "It creates a distinctive environment that is ideal for inspiring and nurturing the very best ideas of the top-ranked group of scientists and their colleagues in key fields."
John has equally high praise. "CIAR has made me better aware of the wealth of scientific talent in Canada that I can draw upon to tackle problems that no one else in the world has solved. This type of teamwork and networking is the envy of the world."
CIAR got its start in 1978, when John Leyerle, then the University of Toronto's dean of the School of Graduate Studies, heard that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council was going to have unallocated funds and was looking for proposals that were "adventuresome, innovative, and directed to basic research of high quality," wrote U of T emeritus professor of History Robert Craig Brown in his account of the CIAR.
Leyerle and English professor Angus Cameron developed a proposal to establish a centre for advanced research at the university. Over the next three years, a large group of leading scholars began to shape the idea.
"Eventually, they decided that an organization that would serve Canada as a whole - as opposed to one that was simply an arm of U of T - would be more effective for advancing really innovative work," says Hosek. "The challenge was to keep the best researchers in Canada and help them be part of the top order of international conversation in their fields."
Crucial to meeting that challenge, Hosek says, was Fraser Mustard, a highly respected professor of medicine at McMaster University, who was involved in the development of CIAR and became its first president in 1982.
"Fraser invented many of the methods that have since defined how we do our work. He was absolutely the right person for the job - a lateral thinker and a man of real courage and creativity. He demanded that our research take risks. And that's how we work today. We're here to ask the hardest questions, to stretch ourselves, test each other and put ourselves in the highest quality collaborations in the world."