Social Science Research Funding in Canada: Additional Notes (4.3)

The Limitations of Blogging about SSHRC

Blogging about complex topics about which little has been researched and published obviously confronts and presents some serious limitations. I am referring here to the previous post on funding by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Trying to understand, let alone convey, the complexities of shifting memberships of disciplinary review committees, changing executives in charge of SSHRC, the impact of new decisions made by the Federal Government which allocates SSHRC’s budget, the pressure from universities and individual faculty, transformations in the level of funding and the number of applications, and the changing landscape of research interests, all together present an almost dizzying array of possibilities that render any conclusions tenuous. To then simplify further in the form of a brief blog post can be even more problematic.

SSHRC Facts and Figures

SSHRC has moved to a much greater degree of transparency in terms of disclosing statistics on previous levels of funding and who received funding, as well as providing the names of those who serve on disciplinary committees. Thus one document indicated that Regna Darnell served as the chair of the anthropology committee in 2007-2008, which does not tell us anything about her role, her influence if any, and so forth, but simply indicates that one of Canada’s better known and most senior anthropologists was at the helm.

I was also able to gain a detailed view of the tremendous funding constraints on social science funding in Canada, from publicly released SSHRC statistics. With reference to the latest results of faculty competition for Standard Research Grants, this year SSHRC received 2,731 applications, of which it funded only 904. The total request for funds amounted to more than $331 million (CDN), with just over $76 million actually awarded. In other words, 33% of the proposed projects were funded, and 23% of the requested funds were allocated. Of the $76 million that was awarded, Ontario universities got $30 million, and Quebec universities got $22 million, so that together they received about 68% of the available research funding — this has consistently been the case for the past decade at least. The most heavily funded universities in Canada are, in descending order: the University of Toronto, McGill University, and Université de Montréal (see below for more about this).

The “main disciplines” funded by SSHRC are:

  1. Archival Science
  2. Classics, Classical & Dead Languages
  3. Communications and Media Studies
  4. Fine Arts
  5. History
  6. Library and Information Science
  7. Literature, Modern Languages and
  8. Mediaeval Studies
  9. Philosophy
  10. Religious Studies
  11. Anthropology
  12. Archaeology
  13. Criminology
  14. Demography
  15. Economics
  16. Education
  17. Urban and Regional Studies, Environmental Studies
  18. Folklore
  19. Geography
  20. Industrial Relations
  21. Law
  22. Linguistics
  23. Management, Business, Administrative Studies
  24. Political Science
  25. Psychology
  26. Social Work
  27. Sociology
  28. Interdisciplinary Studies

I then did a comparative search of the statistics of funding, by discipline, for a few of the usually most prominent disciplines, from 1998 through 2006, which breaks down as follows:

Sociology — $35,124,062
History — $33,933,984
Political Science — $32,997,977
Economics — $22,535,221
Anthropology — $20,252,622
Law –$13,560,255

Ontario and Quebec were again almost identical in the amounts they received for anthropology funding, with the two combined taking 70% of all payments made by SSHRC in that time period.

[Update: Thanks to a colleague for informing me that at the 2008 meeting of Canadian Graduate Program Directors in the Canadian Anthropology Association it was revealed that in all of Canada SSHRC had awarded only 13 doctoral fellowships in anthropology. Quebec separately funded 12 doctoral fellowships in anthropology within the province. This was noted as a serious decline from past years of SSHRC funding. In addition, anthropology doctoral fellowship applications are reviewed by a committee titled, “Culture, Politics, and the Environment.”]

CENTRE VS. PERIPHERY: SSHRC Funds Reinforce Regional Inequalities

In keeping with the previous post of those who have a large pile attracting even more — the University of Toronto is already the holder of the largest private endowments in Canada, even as it receives more public funding for research than any other university in Canada. U of T possesses as of 2005, over $1.4 billion in endowments — by its own admission, these endowments go to support teaching and research (p. 22).

However, in order to obscure its preeminence within Canada, the same report published by U of T claims: “the University’s endowments are not large in comparison to our public university peers. When we consider the top 30 endowments at Canadian and US public institutions in 2004, Toronto ranked 18th in terms of size, and when compared with the same Universities in terms of endowments per FTE (Full Time Equivalent) student, Toronto only ranked 27th. Including the endowments of the federated universities, Toronto ranked 12th in terms of size and 22nd in terms of endowment per FTE student.” The fact of the matter, even as indicated in the report’s own statistics is that U of T has no Canadian peers which even come close to its position — of the 30 institutions to which it compares itself, all are American except for McGill, which itself possesses almost $800 million in endowments (p. 22-24).

A critical political issue is being suppressed here: how is that that so much public funding is concentrated on an already wealthy university, with restrictive admission policies, located in a single city, when the Government of Canada repeatedly claims to be committed to ensuring that all students everywhere in Canada have access to the same quality education, so that no regional disparities and inequalities are reinforced and perpetuated? It is interesting to see the extent to which SSHRC mirrors other areas of public policy, which themselves carry the traces of the workings of world capitalism and the divisions between centres and peripheries. No wonder, then, that “national” unity is treated as a largely empty slogan in many parts of Canada — and not just in Quebec whose universities are actually faring extremely well in this system, and better than most universities outside of the University of Toronto.

Aid to Open Access Research Journals? (2nd draft)

Finally, I spoke in a previous post about SSHRC’s alleged support for international collaboration, which over emphasizes the need for a large Canadian presence in such projects. This tendency can be found as well in SSHRC’s new “Aid to Open-Access Research Journals” fund. This should be something worthy of celebration among those espousing open access, independent academic publishing, except for three major problems in the way SSHRC has arbitrarily limited the scope of the journals it will consider.

  1. SSHRC insists that the majority of members of the editorial board of the journal be affiliated with a Canadian university;
  2. SSHRC insists on the model of peer review that all of the journals it funds must adhere to; and,
  3. SSHRC demands that the journals be already well established, with at least four issues published, a minimum of 250 regular readers, and proof from citation databases that articles published have had an impact.

In purporting to support open access journal publishing, SSHRC’s policy seems to have missed one very critical ingredient: the Internet.

With open source collaboration on the Internet there is no reason why Canadian scholars would or should cluster together rather than form invisible colleges with colleagues from across the planet…that’s kind of the whole fun of the Internet.

Secondly, collaboration is usually based on negotiation and some sort of working consensus. When SSHRC imposes its preferred model of peer review, this minimizes the room for academic independence, academic freedom, and the ability of scholars to create the model that they think will work best.

Thirdly, while not impossible, how does one prove the exact identity of readers to know that 250 of them are “regulars”? How do we know they are reading, and not just downloading?

Finally, citation databases that I have seen tend not to cover electronic journals, and cover only a minority of the print journals, opting instead to cover the most highly cited ones instead. This limitation is not a secret: some companies that compile the citations boast about this happily (see this also).

I suspect that both fear and conservatism are at work in SSHRC’s open access support plan. SSHRC is adopting models of status, reputation, and formatting derived from old, closed access, print journals. SSHRC’s caution borders on outright suspicion. SSHRC’s funding of open access journal lags behind the creation of these journals — that much is acknowledged in the way the program is constructed to fund already existing journals. That such journals were launched without SSHRC assistance raises the question as to why they would need SSHRC assistance now, and for only year. To me this seems like an attempt by SSHRC to insert itself in the open access landscape and to actively intervene in reshaping it to better match its own biases. If the funding is lagging in temporal terms, the nature of the funding decision seems to be conceptually lagging as well, chasing/luring open access creators with closed access constraints.

SSHRC’s one year of funding for a journal is both too little and too much: why so much money for one year (up to $25,000!), and why for one year alone? The underlying nationalism of SSHRC is deplorably counterproductive, and really cannot be justified on scholarly grounds — indeed, quite the contrary. SSHRC does not do Canadian scholars any favours by isolating them unto themselves. In addition, its attempt to impose one single model of peer review is problematic as, ultimately, it counteracts academic freedom.

While SSHRC has actually funded several open access journals in Canada, for some who read these various restrictions, the sub text might be: “serious applicants need not apply.”

2 thoughts on “Social Science Research Funding in Canada: Additional Notes (4.3)

Comments are closed.