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Discussion about funding for Social Sciences

June 8, 2009

There’s an interesting Q&A on the Globe and Mail’s website with Nathalie Des Rosiers, President of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and Chad Gaffield, the president of the Social Sciences And Humanities Research Council of Canada, who answered reader-submitted questions about the state of funding for social science research in Canada. In addition to answering several questions about funding apparently “silly” or “useless” research, Prof. Des Rosiers and Dr. Gaffield addressed basic reasons for funding the social sciences and commented on the disparities in funding between the social sciences and the natural sciences. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Q: Given some absolute constraints on the amount of government funding for research, how do make the case for a larger portion of funding for social sciences research vs. science and medical research? 

A (NDR): let me try and answer: the first one is always knowledge of our society – this is this immaterial way in which we need to know who we are, but I understand that you may want a more direct return. Second, I would say that the numerous problems of our society cannot be answered by science alone. Indeed, it may be dangerous not to measure the impact of some scientific discovery on our society. We have to measure all risks, and the risks to our society as well as to the natural environment. Third, we are making this demand for increased funding in a context of wanting to ensure that our social scientists and humanities scholars are able to contribute to the full extent of their talents to the big questions of our time, and to join multidisciplinary teams. Fourth, we want Canadians universities to be competitive on an international level and the health of social humanities and humanities is important in this context.

Q: Scientists often require funding for expensive analytical equipment, for qualified personnel to run this equipment, and for the day to day costs of operating laboratories, perhaps including chemicals or other consumables. What are the analogous costs for social scientists, and if there are none, do they not therefore simply require less money than natural scientists to do their research? 

A (CG): The good news is that, in many cases, these costs are lower than in some other fields such as quantum computing. But scholars in many fields depend upon research infrastructure and operating expenses just like their colleagues in fields like chemistry or biology. Indeed, one of Canada’s top fields in is digital humanities and the computing costs are significant. Similarly, the creation of databases is central in many fields along with trips to archives, field survey research, and on and on. The similarities across all research fields is greater than any differences especially now.

A (NDR): The purpose is not to underfund scientists, “au contraire”… We know that success rates in individual competition will vary and certainly amounts of funding will differ widely. Humanists may need less money to complete research programs. Nevertheless, they require a minimum of funding. And this is the question. Our proposition is that increased funding for social sciences and humanities will increase the ability to compete of Canadians scholars on the international science where big research projects are multidisciplinary. We are attempting to equip better the social sciences and humanities researchers to be part of interdisciplinary teams that can compete for international competitions.

Q: …Surely there is value in the kind of work that the social study (anthropology and sociology, communications and so forth) of medicine does, and surely that work is worth funding more, not less – even if we can’t stick a patent on it and sell it in a bottle. No?

A (NDR): I agree. Indeed, the point of increasing the support for our researchers is to permit all disciplines to truly offer something to the discovery voyage that our society is undertaking. If health is the worry of many Canadians, we need the benefit of all disciplines and the best possible answers from all.

A (CG): On the question of health research, let me emphasize how central the social sciences and humanities have become in terms of improving the lives of indviduals and the health of societies. For example, medical humanities is a rapidly growing field involving, among other things, the use of literature in therapy (which in some cases is far more success than drugs). The good news is that the Medical Research Council was transformed into CIHR with an expanded mandate to include the social sciences and humanities, and is now able to fully embrace this expanded mandate. Please check the CIHR website to see their warm invitation to scholars from the social sciences and humanities.

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