Leshner and Toope didn’t get all of it right!

On the occasion of an upcoming meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver, Stephen Toope, the President of UBC and Alan Leshner, CEO of the AAAS, co-wrote an op-ed for the Vancouver Sun entitled, “Innovation, international collaboration go hand in hand”They were using the occasion to single out recent “Canadian examples of international research.” And on this front, they didn’t get all of it right!

They didn’t get it right because they missed a great opportunity to point at the jewel in the crown of Canada’s legacy at true international collaboration in innovation and discovery, the Banff International Research Station (BIRS).

Full disclosure: I am the scientific director of BIRS, but this is not the only reason why I am disappointed that Leshner and Toope chose not to point to the Station as a “Canadian example of international research”. After all, the reputation of BIRS and the facts speak for themselves. More than 2000 international researchers from 65 different countries converge on the Station every year to participate in one or more of its 70 programs, which –though anchored in the mathematical and statistical sciences– touch upon essentially every discipline in the physical sciences, engineering, and medecine.

Leshner and Toope missed a golden occasion to showcase an ultimate example of how “innovation and international collaboration go hand in hand” –not only in research but also in joint reviewing, in joint funding, and in joint management. A prototype for international collaboration that should inspire the participants of the AAAS  in every discipline and in every aspect of research.

Most relevant here is the uniqueness of BIRS in being a joint Canada-US-Mexico initiative, an ideal vehicle for the advancement of North-American science in collaboration with the international scientific community. BIRS is funded through an honest-to-goodness joint international peer-review process that involves granting foundations representing four North American governments: Mexico’s National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT), Alberta Innovation, the US National Science Foundation (NSF), and Canada’s Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). A first, and a collaborative funding model to emulate and encourage.

In contrast, Leshner and Toope point to the Waterloo-based Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI), which hosts 14 resident researchers and around 45 international visitors. And we can’t help but wonder: was their choice motivated by the huge Canadian government investment in the Perimeter Institute over the past ten years exceeding $278-million and dwarfing the $6-million NSERC  investment in BIRS? (This, by the way, covers only 22% of BIRS budget, while the NSF contributes 30%). Or is it an implicit endorsement of a more direct funding model for research from government, that lies outside the normal procedures of open competition and peer-review? What I would really like to think and believe is that Stephen Toope, being the President of UBC, was simply reluctant to showcase yet another international success story that is headquartered in Western Canada.

By pointing at examples, academic leaders are not only exhibiting success stories –in this case about innovation and international collaboration. They are also effectively showcasing, endorsing, and legitimizing research models to be sustained and emulated. It is unfortunate that Leshner and Toope did not point at BIRS as a model for how governments should cooperate closely in supporting future international collaborations for the Advancement of Science in America.

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