'Crazy land' ponders big revamp for humanities

March 28, 2003

Canada could change the way it funds the social sciences and humanities by grouping researchers into areas of social issues and not just by their academic disciplines.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, one of the three main federal granting bodies for university research, has been given the go-ahead by its board to look at setting up a structure of separate research institutes, organised by areas such as democracy and human rights, poverty and aboriginal affairs.

The SSHRC is in talks with the government and is looking at a scenario where half the money it provides for research grants, C$143 million (£60 million) for 2002-03, would be organised on an institute model.

Marc Renaud, SSHRC president, would like to see the social sciences and humanities more involved in Canadian public policy and become better at informing citizens. He said that important research was out there but the way it was organised made it hard for Canadians to know what was being studied.

"Rightwing nationalism could re-emerge in Quebec and nobody would notice in English Canada. We can get the aboriginal people feeling so misunderstood that you can get some terrorists coming out of there," he said.

Dr Renaud said structural changes could better mitigate against miscommunication and promote vital research information. "What tool can we develop to get the knowledge to circulate more rapidly and for people to be better known across this crazy land that is Canada?"

Dr Renaud cited two influences behind the decision to explore an agency overhaul. First, three years ago, Canadian research agency, the Medical Research Council, metamorphosed into the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, emphasising a cross-disciplinary approach to distinct areas of health.

Then last autumn, Martha Piper, president of the University of British Columbia, set out her vision of a restructured SSHRC in the prestigious Killam lecture series. She called for the agency's mandate "to involve a commitment to network scholars across the country, in academies, colleges, institutes or alliances that focus on some of the most pressing 'civil society' issues".

The overhaul could include institutes "coming and going", depending on the needs of society at the time. Dr Renaud said the SSHRC would need a year to debate the issue.

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