Science Leadership: Like Conducting an Orchestra.

Article by J. Dean Spence

As a teenager, Dr. Alan Bernstein, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CFAR), did not know whether he wanted to be a conductor or a scientist.

“When I was in high school, I started to play the cello, and I was put in the high school orchestra”, said Dr. Bernstein. “We had a very good high school orchestra and I loved playing in it. It was so much fun. We actually started a smaller string group, about 8 of us. I was the conductor. I don’t know how good I was, but that was fun too”.

Dr. Bernstein notes that there are some similarities between musical leaders and leaders in general. Pointing to a picture on a shelf of his 13 directors at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Dr. Bernstein says, “When I was at CIHR I created 13 institutes and in that picture there are 13 institute directors who reported to me. Someone pointed out to me that there are actually 13 sections in an orchestra”.

In an orchestra collaboration is key. A conductor’s musicians must be experts of their chosen instrument, and they must play well as part of the larger ensemble. Dr. Bernstein, who received his Ph.D. from the Department of Medical Biophysics in the early 1970s, argues that they need to play well together by following the same tempo, the same key, the same interpretation, and they need to be willing to follow the conductor. Orchestral members must be assured that the conductor knows the music, and they must be convinced that the conductor’s interpretation has validity.

“I think there’s no difference in science. Throughout my career, I’ve led on the basis of two things: one is the credibility of my own science—I understand science. I’ve demonstrated that by doing science. And secondly, to convince people and the country that my vision for CIHR was the right one”.

Considering his experience as a science leader, it is no surprise that Dr. Bernstein was chosen to speak at U of T’s Science Leadership Program’s (SLP) reunion on February 29, 2016.

“I’m going to talk about the importance of leadership”, he said. “I’m going to talk about my own experience with leadership, and from those experiences my philosophy of leadership. And particularly leadership and science because that’s what I’m interested in”.

Launched in 2013, SLP was designed to give U of T professors the tools they need to become effective communicators and leaders both on and off the campus. Every year U of T faculty and a smaller number of professors from the U15, are welcomed into the program. After they graduate, they are invited back a year later for a reunion, in part to hear speakers like Dr. Bernstein.

Dr. Bernstein has no formal connection to SLP, but has decades of experience as a science leader. He has served as the executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise (a group of organizations attempting to develop an HIV vaccine), president of CIHR (a federal agency that provides funding for Canadian health research), as well as his current role at CFAR (an institute which engages in advanced study of complex areas of inquiry). He has won numerous awards including the Robert L. Noble Prize, the Gairdner Wightman Award, and the Order of Canada. In 2015, Dr. Bernstein was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.

If you ask Dr. Bernstein about his philosophy of leadership, you will likely hear 3 themes:   Leaders need followers. Leaders need to listen. And leadership is about change.

Regarding followers, Dr. Bernstein points out that they bestow upon the leader the right to lead. “That one person has to embody the values, the hopes, the dreams, the goals, and the aspirations of that group of people in the organization. They confer upon the leader the right to lead”.

A crucial part of leadership is listening to those followers.

“To be a leader you need to be listening to the people who you aspire to lead”, he said. “You have to ask them what’s behind what they are really saying and turn that into action”.

Dr. Bernstein is most talkative about the importance of change and leadership. Because an organization’s environment is always changing, Dr. Bernstein argues that leaders must steer the organization in an appropriate direction to ensure its survival. He is quick to point out that he is not talking about change for change’s sake, but says that leaders must have a fire in their belly and convince their followers that although their organization may be great but it could be even greater if certain changes are made.

For example, when he came to CFAR in 2012, it was obvious to Dr. Bernstein that some changes were needed.

“CFAR is a great organization. The changes I’m making will not will not change the basic idea of CFAR, which is to bring together the world’s best people to tackle questions of importance to the world. If I change that then I change the whole essence of CFAR. I’ll give you one example of a change I made. We used to have a culture that said we don’t partner with anybody because nobody is good enough to partner with us. So when I came here after about 6 months of discussion with the executive and the board, we launched CFAR 2.0. We’re still CFAR but we’ve hit the refresh button. My attitude is of course there are other organizations that are as good as us. They just do different things. And as long as our values align, we’re better off partnering with them than not”.

One such partnership is with Brain Canada, which funds neuroscience research.

“We don’t fund research. We bring people together. They fund research, but they don’t bring people together. So we complement each other. That’s exactly what a partnership should be about. They’re giving us $10 million to help us do our work. That’s a lot of money for us. So that’s an example of one of the changes I’ve made”.

Considering how important science is to society, Dr. Bernstein suggests that it is odd that scientists are not taught more about leadership.

“All scientists work within an organizations”, he says. “It could be a university, a hospital, or a company. Scientists are not trained to understand leadership. If you work in the private sector for a big company you may be trained a little about leadership, but faculty at the University of Toronto, for example, except for [the SLP], are not really trained to think about leadership”.

An important aspect of the SLP, and science leadership in general, is building the communication skills of its cohorts. Dr. Bernstein notes that it is important for leaders to communicate often and communicate well, even when they do not feel like communicating.

“Leadership is all about communication. One reason for this is because, as I’ve said before, if you’re a leader, leadership is always about change. You can have in your head the changes you want to make, but nobody out there is a mind reader. Leaders need to be constantly communicating. They need to be constantly listening to how followers feel about new ideas”.