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How to Play a Long Game

How to Play a Long Game

Story by Mifi Purvis | Photos by John Ulan

When your goal is to transform science, it helps if you can think several moves ahead

Jonathan Schaeffer knows that playing the long game nets better results than going for a quick win. A computer scientist, one-time tournament-level chess player and dean of the Faculty of Science since 2012, Schaeffer was originally attracted to UAlberta to work with Tony Marsland — one of only two people in Canada working in Schaeffer’s area of interest at the time.

Schaeffer researches artificial intelligence. His team created the checkers-playing program Chinook, the first computer to win a human world championship for any game. In 2007, the team announced checkers was solved — meaning perfect play by both sides leads to a draw. Make a mistake, however, and Chinook will pounce.

Schaeffer, shown here in his home with his personal collection of books on polar exploration, shares how he applies that same winning approach to transforming the Faculty of Science.

Is it true people find you playing games in your office?
This used to be the norm a few years ago, but not so much today! Although if you visit my office and I’m playing a game, I’m actually doing research. I study artificial intelligence in game-playing computer programs. That means I get to research the latest AI technologies and apply them to games.

You’ve said you want to set the right conditions to turn luck and insight into discovery. What do you mean?
We have an amazing faculty pushing the boundaries of knowledge. We have superb students and talented support staff — all the ingredients for success. To be a truly elite science faculty takes a huge commitment. That commitment would benefit from a fund that would allow us to do something bold. Big ideas don’t happen every day. When those opportunities come along, we need to jump. So we thought of the SCI Fund as a way to get there.

What is the SCI Fund? It sounds ambitious.
It is. The SCI Fund is short for “science, creativity and innovation,” and it’s an endowed fund. I want to build for the future, so that 20 years from now it allows my successors to be visionary. My first year here, I had an opportunity to hire a team of scientists. They were doing breakthrough work in physics. Experts told me, “These guys are top in this area. If it works, they will win a Nobel Prize and change the world.” But the cost of this group was $1 million a year, because it wasn’t just the scientists. There’s a lab, there’s graduate students, there’s post-docs — it adds up pretty quickly. I couldn’t find the money.

We have many wonderful donors who give generously, but their money is split over hundreds of pots. The SCI Fund channels as much of the giving as possible into a single pot that will let the Faculty of Science do big things. I like to say: “United we grow, divided we status quo.”

What are some of those “big things” already happening in the science faculty?
I can rhyme off a bunch, but I’ll forget some — and you can be sure I’ll hear about it! But ... paleontology. We have the world’s most famous dinosaur hunter here [Philip Currie, Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology]. Machine learning. We have one of the top groups, internationally acknowledged. Carbohydrate chemistry — we have a world-class reputation. We have a long legacy of polar bear research. And geology. The faculty’s geoscientists built this province. All these research programs, and others, need to be supported if they are to keep their “world class” status.

And yet we hear stories about serendipity and genius — that greatness will bubble to the surface, despite the odds.
Greatness bubbles to the surface — but in the right environment with the right people and the right infrastructure. The lone scientist, the genius who closes his laboratory door and emerges years later with some breakthrough, is far less likely.

So then, this is much bigger than just one project or one outcome.
An endowment of $200 million will change the Faculty of Science. We’re not there yet, and during my term as dean, we will not get there. The SCI Fund is for donors who think strategically and long-term: they know the benefits may not happen for decades. We need these partners to help us do big, transformative things. The fund will support existing world-class research, allow us to move into new research areas, explore innovative teaching ideas and give us the nimbleness to grab opportunities when they come our way.

If you could fast-forward to 2050, what kind of outcomes would we expect to see from the SCI Fund?
Research and teaching outcomes are unpredictable, but some high-level outcomes will happen. We will be a stronger research powerhouse; achieve breakthrough results, many leading to commercialization; be the first choice for many of the best Canadian undergraduate and graduate students; be recognized nationally and internationally for an outstanding educational experience; see a massive increase in the revenue being generated by Faculty of Science spinoff companies; and so on. All of this is doable — it just requires a vision that we can all get behind and the necessary financial support from the university, province and generous donors.

Under Jonathan Schaeffer’s leadership, the Faculty of Science is putting the next big scientific advancement within reach. The SCI Fund — an endowed fund with an ambitious $200-million goal — is a route to novel scientific ideas, methods and discoveries, positioning the faculty as a leader and academic destination.

To learn how you can help transform the Faculty of Science, contact Michelle Fuko at 780-492-8824 or