05 October 2012

Envisioning the Future for Humanities and Social Science Research

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure to attend the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Imagining Canada's Future workshop. As a member of SSHRC's Programs and Quality Committee, I joined  60 or so academic leaders from across the country and from a variety of disciplines to engage in strategic planning for SSHRC to 2030. The event was an excellent exercise in seeking understanding of the present and how SSHRC can best respond to – and shape - future challenges. Over the course of two days the group went through a variety of discussion exercises designed to identify future challenges, articulate plausible scenarios (both positive and negative) congruent with these challenges, and then posit possible responses the SSHRC community can enable.

Discussion over the course of the event was representative of the multiple disciplines present, and was a very positive articulation of future scenarios and how the SSHRC community can play an active role in helping to shape the future of Canada in a global context.

The event was as much a validation of the recent changes to the overall program architecture mix SSHRC enacted over the past year or so, showing that there is strong consonance in the streamlined program architecture with future directions and needs, and that this new approach is an effective architecture of the future. That is, the course SSHRC is on represents an enabling strategy that will let the SSHRC community provide leadership on areas of concern for all Canadians. Some of these issues will be topical - the environment, for example - in the sense that we are currently grappling with them and will continue to need to do so for some time to come. Other topics, such as the role and impact of technology, gender, race, aboriginal issues, the role of research – all resonate strongly with what is important in the world, and how Canada relates to the world. Above all, what struck me as most interesting was the balance the conversation had around what our society needs in terms of social and economic productivity and innovation, but also what we want: a well balanced approach to the integration of arts, culture, and ideas to underpin our social infrastructure.

And this is precisely what the SSHRC community offers Canada. Understanding the human condition is the hallmark of the Humanities and Social Science (HASS) disciplines. Ensuring that our understanding is strong and vibrant, and can contribute to a strong and vibrant culture, is essential to our long term social and economic well being. This ethos pervaded the discussion and conclusions, though these conclusions are a prelude to the work that lies ahead. This includes the further engagement with the SSHRC community around the implications for these scenarios, and a discussion about how the HASS disciplines can continue to enable Canada to lead and to further develop the human capital potential latent in our future. We have an excellent foundation to work on, and an even better blueprint, or compass, for building and charting the future.

This foundational discussion was rendered even more relevant with the release last week of the CCA Expert Panel Report on the State of Science and Technology in Canada. Of the six disciplines in which Canada leads the world, the majority are HASS disciplines. This is excellent news for the SSHRC community, and represents a key step forward in recognizing the excellence that SSHRC is known for. Of particular importance is the fact that the 2006 report was not able to squarely cover the HASS disciplines. Now, however, with a very rigorous and robust methodology, we can clearly see evidence for what many of us have known for some time, that SSHRC research in Canada is world leading in many fields, and represents some of the country's greatest strengths.

There is work to be done, however. The CCA report outlines some gaps in covering the HASS disciplines. While effort was made to work around these gaps, there are limitations that can be addressed by the SSHRC community. This includes harmonizing definitions and language and coming to a common understanding of how to measure excellence in HASS disciplines. SSHRC should lead this effort, working with the Federation of Social Sciences to set the standards for how we want to be measured for excellence. There is an excellent foundation for this in the report. Now is the time for us to seize the opportunity to lead the HASS community in defining our standards of excellence.

On the role of colleges and polytechnics, there is work to be done both in terms of ensuring that the applied research in this sector is quantifiable (we have a start in the report) in terms of outputs. There is also work to connect the fact that the colleges represent key HASS disciplines in their work with Canadian industry. This is a key driver of business innovation.

There are many high points in the report: SSHRC is highly valued as an organization contributing to Canada’s research infrastructure according to S&T experts in the country. The single most important thing industry needs to innovate is access to innovative talent, and in this area the HASS disciplines are very strong. HASS disciplines make up a significant percentage of the country’s production of graduates – both undergraduates (as inputs to robust S&T) and graduate students (as outputs, or contributors). Digital media and ICT are fast emerging clusters of importance.

A really strong success story for us at SSHRC is the emerging disciplines area of the report. Health and personalized medicine was top of the list, which includes digital media. Digital media is an interesting discipline as it is a combination in of arts and engineering. This interdisciplinary approach is indicative of a future trend in many areas, and exemplifies the boundary crossing capacity of HASS disciplines. That is, the integration of divergent thinking is a key strength of arts based education, for example, and this emergent area in particular shows the value that HASS disciplines bring to emergent areas of science and technology. To put this another way, gaming, to use the example cited in the CCA S&T Report, requires programming, but importantly also storytelling, art direction, and design skills. It is these HASS disciplines that arguably create the greatest advantage in this mix. To that end, personalized medicine, while certainly refers to genetics, also refers to technology to enable this. This infers design skills, meaning there are interdisciplinary strengths the HASS disciplines bring to many other S&T areas.

Another world leading area of excellence is in business and management, another SSHRC area. Given the country’s focus on entrepreneurship and innovation, this is another significant good news item and opportunity for us to show the core value of HASS disciplines to the well being - social and economic - of the country. While STEM skills are certainly important, they are clearly one component of a robust S&T infrastructure. What is clear from the report is that the HASS disciplines, and SSHRC, are an essential strand in the double helix of our science and technology capacity and innovation potential.

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