2008 Gairdner Awards Dinner

Gairdner Awards Dinner
Prof. Heather Munroe-Blum
Oct. 23, 2008


Thank you, John. Bonsoir. C'est pour moi un très grand honneur d'être ici ce soir parmi vous à cette événement, pour reconnaître l'excellence dans le milieu des sciences.

Good evening, members of the Gairdner Family, distinguished Gairdner Awardees, Dr. Dirks and the Gairdner Medical Advisory Board, dear colleagues and friends, ladies and gentlemen.

It is an enormous pleasure and a great privilege to be here with all of you this evening for this year's wonderful Gairdner celebration. This is particularly so as I look at this year's honourees, who represent the very best in the world of humanity's noble pursuit of science.

We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Gairdner Awards. And golden anniversaries provide a unique opportunity to reflect back and to evaluate the wisdom of the founding vision; to examine the degree to which the instruments of that vision have achieved their aims; and, to look into the future, to assess the continuing relevance of that vision.

From each of these perspectives, James Gairdner's decision to create awards to be bestowed in Canada, that recognize outstanding discoveries by the world's top scientists, was, and continues to be, an act of extraordinary audacity.

Fifty years ago, when these awards were first conceived, Canadian science was facing significant challenges, challenges that resurfaced to some extent in even more recent times. There was a persistent brain drain of our very top scientists, field by field, to better-funded institutes and universities, in more innovative countries. "Toronto the good" was far from the global city it is today. And Canada's science policy environment had become increasingly narrow in scope (with some exceptions). By the late 1960s, international faculty recruitment was virtually taboo. The emphasis was on "made in Canada" professors, research platforms and partnerships. Books such as "Close the 49th Parallel" and "Lament for a Nation" became part of the canon that defined Canadian political science reading lists well into the 1980s, and symbolized the prevailing blinkered view of what it takes for a nation to succeed.

James Gairdner, and the Gairdner Awards, led the charge for wider intellectual openness, and took the firm and radical position that recognizing scientific accomplishments on a global basis would advance the cause of research and scientific development here in Canada, and in so doing, benefit our society as a whole. This vision has been maintained superbly for 49 years by the Gairdner Family, first with, KJR Wrightman and Charles Hollenberg. And, since 1993, under Dr. John Dirks.

And what we have seen then is that the creation and then the rise in the profile of the Gairdner Awards, both at home and abroad, has helped change the terms of engagement with science at our universities, in our hospitals and research institutes, and in governments and boardrooms across this country.

And this transformation had partners: John Evans, Fraser Mustard, Henry Freisen, Lou Siminovitch, Cal Stiller, and many others, including philanthropists such as Joe Rotman. With this raised profile, our collective scientific aspirations for Canada, and for Canada's place in the world, have risen dramatically and appropriately.

And now, since the late-1990s, remarkable investments in our universities, in our talent, and in our scientific enterprise have been made by both federal and provincial governments alike. And these investments have come from across a wide variety of political parties: from the Liberals and then the Conservatives in Ottawa, to the Conservatives and then the Liberals in Ontario, to the Parti Québécois and then the Liberals in Quebec and the Conservatives, and then the Conservatives in Alberta. As it deserves to be, science is increasingly a cause of our nation, and not a political cause.

The Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs, the institutional (or indirect) costs of research program, and, more recent policy innovations at both the federal and provincial levels, these are in many ways the children of the Gairdner Awards' and their emphasis on evaluating scientists, scientific quality, and scientific progress by global standards. Perhaps the newly created Global Excellence Research Chairs and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are the best examples of this: grandchildren perhaps, of the Gairdners: programs open to the very best in the world, wherever they may be found. And to come full circle, how fantastic then, when last year the federal government of Canada chose to recognize and celebrate the Gairdners with a superb, sustained and generous investment in the Gairdner Foundation.

Canadians owe a huge debt of gratitude to all who have built on the legacy of James Gairdner, and for furthering the recognition in this country that excellence in science and research will only succeed by knowing no geographical boundaries. But here I wish also to express on behalf of all of us and Canada, our deep appreciation to the dedication of the Gairdner Family and to Dr. John Dirks, for his relentless championing of the Gairdner Program for well over a decade. As Jonathan Swift wrote: "Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others."

What John Gairdner saw, that was invisible to others, was that only by recognizing the best minds and achievements of scientists around the world, would Canada be able to drive excellence on a global scale, and in so doing, create a high visible standard for Canadian policy makers, institutions, industries, and researchers to aspire to. And, at the same time, I want to emphasize that our job is only half done. It is our duty now to work together; all of us from universities, governments, industries, communities and individuals, to sustain and grow a climate in which Canadian talent, especially our scientists and scholars have continuing incentives to participate in and lead outstanding global networks.

We must continue to build ways for researchers to shine light on the next generation of discoveries of the biological basis of disease, to translate research into prevention and into better health and patient care, and to educate outstanding scientists – to become tomorrow's award winners around the world.

The creation of the Gairdner awards preceded by almost half a century, awareness that we are a global community sharing a common fate, that it takes a global collaboration to solve the big problems. Problems such as mapping the human brain or developing effective new treatments for cancer or obesity or Alzheimer's. Canada and its universities must be nimble and engaged enough to seize the opportunities emerging from new and continually evolving intellectual and research networks.

Together, for our regions and for Canada as a whole, we must continually:

  • identify those niches where we can excel on the international stage;
  • develop critical mass and quality in these areas of strength; and
  • define a means to reach out and connect to key regions of the world that have a particular resonance with our strengths.

In the midst of global uncertainty – uncertainty about geo-political stability, uncertainty about the environment and about our financial institutions, uncertainty about whether we can innovate our labour force, and uncertainty about global health, the values of the pursuit of science provide a foundation that does not shift or crack – a foundation that weathers the harsh storm, and stands solid amidst the sand swirling around us. From the moment humans learned to control fire, science has been the single, lasting vehicle to carry human progress forward.

That James Gairdner saw this clearly, and had the will to hold the pursuit of excellence in science up so that others could see what he saw, is a gift to all of us, and to Canada. Scientific discovery continues to be: the sudden light that lifts the heart. I congratulate our new Gairdner Award winners and those who preceded them, and I thank you for the privilege of speaking on this very special evening.


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