Social Science Research Funding in Canada (2.0), or: “Where Devils Dare to Defecate”

Despite the broad sweep of the title of this post, this is most definitely not a detailed historical overview and statistical analysis of the current state of research funding for the social sciences in Canada. As this post goes through various stages of revision, some of these details and relevant documents will possibly be added. For now I only wish to comment on some key details that have impressed me as someone who has worked in Canada full time as a professor for the past five years, and as an applicant for five research grants, and recipient of three. My objective is not to write praises, but to write about problems, otherwise one cannot hope for any improvement if we simply busy ourselves with congratulations. (Warning: this post will only be of interest to those with much more than a passing interest in Canadian academic research funding.)

Let me start with an “old Italian saying” that my mother used to share with me when she would say in a Roman dialect, “il diavolo caca sul mucio grosso.” Another version is: “il diavolo va sempre a cagàr sul monte più alto.” The translation of the first version would be “the devil shits on the big pile” and in the second case, “the devil always goes to shit on the highest mound.” The idea, more evident in the first version, is that an already big pile of excrement is very attractive to the devil, who will add more to what is already in place. I have a dog — by no means a devil — who also sniffs out where other dogs have defecated, so he can join the chorus, so to speak. In essence, it comes down to an idea about capitalism itself: those who have a great deal already, can expect to gain much more, and those who start with little or nothing, can expect to end up with little or nothing. It’s not an “American Dream” view of the world, it is a much more sober persistent poverty view of reality.

There is something about systemic discrimination in the allocation of research funds in Canada that brings to mind devils and shit. When I was a tenure-track assistant professor in Cape Breton, I learned that the consistent trend was for excellent applications for funding to be approved…but denied funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (our primary and often only source of research funding). In other words, they came ‘just short’ — there was nothing seriously deficient with the proposed projects in the minds of reviewers, but they were put aside in a pile of projects to be funded if there were sufficient funds. Universities in Atlantic Canada tend to be small (with some major exceptions), often rural, and several do not have graduate programs but do have very intensive undergraduate programs where students can do a fair amount of research in partnership with faculty. (One example being the number one rated university for undergraduates in all of Canada which has consistently been St. Francis Xavier, in a small, easy to miss town in Nova Scotia called Antigonish; in terms of the overall quality of the student experience, the number two university is grossly underfunded Cape Breton University, where students get much more direct research experience than their counterparts in larger and better funded universities–but student research is undervalued, or lumped under the heading of “teaching” for some bizarre reason.) The implicit notion at work is that there are primarily teaching-oriented universities in Canada, and those that are primarily research-oriented (usually the very large, older, metropolitan universities such as the University of Toronto and McGill University), and that there is a way of weighing applications to favour the latter.

Thus one problem is that of structural discrimination that favours metropolitan universities, and that retains peripheral universities in a funding backwater. Research becomes the occupation of the privileged and knowledge creation is effectively restricted to special geographic zones.

The additional problem that derives from this situation is that for a primarily teaching-oriented university to expand and develop graduate programs it will immediately be hamstrung by a low level of predetermined research funding that is available, based on that university’s past research record. That means that fewer scholarships are made available for graduates in that university. In addition, faculty will have a harder time securing funding. If the university is poorly funded, it will rely on faculty to generate research funds so they can hire graduate students as research assistants, and thus supplement the students’ incomes, because the university itself will offer little in the way of scholarships, which means there are fewer inducements to attract and retain graduate students to begin with. No secrets are being revealed here — it is that very fact, that this knowledge is public, that makes the maintenance of this system of inequality all the more interesting.

Back in 2003-2004, the directors of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) toured Canadian universities with an ambitious proposal to seriously transform the landscape and structure of research funding in Canada. I was one of those at Cape Breton University who met with them. One of their wonderful ideas, that I enthusiastically endorsed, was to establish a system of permanent research funding for all faculty in Canada. What that would mean in practice is that if a professor could show that she or he maintained an active research record, they would be assured funding year after year, for the rest of their careers. The way to do that would be to essentially take the total amount of social science research funding available in Canada, and divide it equally among all professors. Who opposed this? The big research universities of course. The idea that a professor could no longer compete for a $250,000 grant to cover three years of research (and maybe fail to gain the grant, or perhaps only gain a fraction of what was sought), and instead have to settle for maybe $10,000 annually, was roundly rejected. Those professors want the big research teams, the small tribe of graduate researchers, the labs, and so forth.

Inequality in funding leads to the mainstreaming of research priorities:

The vetting of grant applications by SSHRC committees that comprise scholars who serve voluntarily, means that with the artificial scarcity of funding caused by the bloated $250,000 applications and the lack of a system of equitable distribution, there is a tendency to fund projects that best satisfy the interests, priorities, and prejudices of reviewers. Inequality demands that review committees be in place to judge who gets what, and who gets naught. With committees in place, and no automatic funding, then active selection and exclusion takes place. The result can be that “unpopular” and unorthodox projects are sidelined, with a greater tendency toward mainstreaming research. From the inequality of public research funding, which should belong to all researchers in publicly funded universities (nobody can can claim to have more of a right to taxpayer funds), comes the inequality in distribution of research interests.

One can be certain that the large research universities, with researchers with heavy axes to grind in terms of defending particular research agendas, are well served by such a system. The contrary scenario, of shared funding, means a diminished profile, less clout, fewer students to serve as clones, and to add insult to injury, the threat of heterodox research projects suddenly coming to light.

(Update/Revision: One needs to do some research, or examine any published documentation, before coming to any firm conclusions as to what kinds of research agendas are tending to prevail, and to what extent one can establish a general set of trends. The additional step is to then determine whether the peer review of grant applications leads to the entrenching of established research trends, whether these trends are reinforcing themselves, whereby previously funded scholars, who have gained respect with proven research records, are then being called to act as peer reviewers and thus using their positions to discriminate in favour of research areas better suit their perspectives — drawing any direct links may be very complicated and may offer uncertain results. Making the tasks even more complicated, we need to figure out at what level to look for prevailing research trends: at the level of preferred theoretical approaches? methodological approaches? philosophical assumptions? The term used above, mainstreaming, may in fact mask something more complicated: a hierarchy of preferred research agendas, among a cluster of differing research projects — in other words, we might find both dominance and diversity, rather than homogeneity. I would be interested in learning about how many identifiably social constructionist projects are being funded, compared with post-structuralist projects, etc. In addition I am interested in learning the rate of approval for Canadian-based ethnographic projects compared to projects in non-Canadian settings. This could end up being a monumental research agenda taking years, and access to mounds of archived documents, and some solid statistical analysis. I am offering none of that in this post — in this case, I am offering speculation, guesses, questions.)

A second problem has to do with the dissemination of research paid for by Canadian taxpayers.

The directors of SSHRC proposed different forms of research dissemination that ought to be more valued: newspaper articles, websites, etc. Among others, I actively advocated for open access research dissemination in statements directed to discussions of the SSHRC transformation. Canadian taxpayers had already paid for the research, and print publishers were profiting without having made the initial investment. Why should taxpayers have to pay for the same research twice, which is what they would be doing whenever they bought a researcher’s book, or whenever their children had to pay fees for coursepacks? The system as it stands struck me as unethical to say the least. Since then, SSHRC has come up with a weak statement that nominally supports open access, without mandating it.

A third problem has to do with notions of “peer review”, and the cover for university operating costs.

Here I will be sparing with details of who said what or where, for obvious reasons. Let me just say that I have been exposed to the argument that one must seek research funding because it is solid proof of “peer reviewed research.” I continue to be amazed by this statement. I will attest that the slimmest forms of peer review that I have ever received were from commentators on my grant applications –which are not in themselves research, but proposed research. Comments were either brief, or by individuals with little knowledge, or no comments were forthcoming at all, just a letter announcing the award.

This is instead better understood as a case where university administrators use the carrot as a stick to motivate faculty. The reason for doing so is that financially strapped institutions siphon off the research funds for general university operating costs, which then frees them to pay administrators more, to offer them pay raises in the double digit percentage range, while granting only meager raises, if any, to staff and faculty. How can they do that? When a researcher is awarded a grant, his or her university gets in some cases 40% for every dollar awarded in addition, supposedly to cover the “indirect costs” of research, i.e., the need for office supplies. What the university can then do (and actually does in some cases) is to say, sorry, we need that money, we have a deficit, you make your own arrangements for office supplies. This can mean that a researcher goes out of pocket to fund some of the real costs of research…and that is while they actually have a research grant.

The result is that researchers who win grants, in an underfunded university seeking to develop graduate programs, pay for university operating costs and research assistantships, so that we effectively end up paying the university from our efforts, which can almost appear to be that we are paying for our own jobs to a certain degree.

A fourth problem is bureaucracy, that is, time spent in non-productive activity.

Anyone who has had the dubious fortune of winning a research grant in Canada will remember, with pain, the months spent on nothing other than producing the application (aside from teaching). That is not the end of it. Once you get the grant, a complex system of accounting and management comes into force, and you can find yourself inundated with paperwork on a regular basis: expense reports, time sheets, cheque requisitions, vouchers, balancing funds, accounting for funds spent, reports on funds spent, etc. In some of the busiest times of the year, I have devoted entire weekends to doing nothing else except filling out expense reports.

The question then is: why bother applying for a research grant? When it comes down to it, everything is much simpler, and there is less of a scam, when one is funding-free…so why bother? Obviously there are many reasons: in some cases, such as mine, the very purchase of a computer is only possible with a research grant, since the university provides none. There are status issues as well. And, let’s not forget, the thrill of doing research.

In some cases, however, it is better to be free. SSHRC has recently begun to fund open access journal websites. In my case, I prefer not to apply: I cherish my independence too much to suddenly make years of my work accountable to a government agency.

SOLUTIONS?

I do not trust that the system will change from within universities, certainly not entirely. To some extent we need better educated taxpayers who actively seek to inform themselves on how their money is being handled — how they pay for research twice, as explained above. I do not advocate that we make researchers accountable for what they seek to research, but I do think that government agencies need to be held to account for how they handle the funds, how the universities handle the funds, and for how the research is disseminated. In the meantime, tenure and promotion committees, especially in the social sciences and humanities, need to start valuing non-peer reviewed research dissemination, online publishing, websites, and so forth. I have a lot to say about peer review, but this is not the time and space for that (yet). Researchers themselves need to start thinking less in terms of dollar figures and status, and more in terms of independence, and look for avenues of doing research that is light in cost, or free of costs, or independently financed, or collaboratively financed with those at the centre of the research. Lastly, we need to actively militate against the vetting of grants by SSHRC, and have public research funds equally distributed among faculty in Canada, with severely reduced application procedures and less of the accountancy. Right now we have great accountancy and poor accountability.

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