Looking Beyond SSHRC: Decentralizing and Opening Research Funding (1.3)

This is a continuation of a series of articles on social science research funding in Canada (1, 2, 3, 4), with the aim being to produce some form of provisional closure before I turn my attention to other issues. In the long run, however, it will be important to get a more complete sense of the political economy of social science, and anthropology, research funding internationally to understand some of the opportunities and constraints at work when conceiving of an “open anthropology.”

Why the Silence, Eh? Quietly Canadian.

One of the main concerns I have as I write these articles is that there is little in the way of criticism to be found online concerning the workings and structuring of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC/CRSH), which can mean many different things: that SSHRC’s position is so well entrenched that it is too far beyond questioning by researchers who take it for granted that this is the way things are, and maybe this is way things should be; that researchers do not take the time to post their opinions online, reserving them for private grumblings among colleagues (and there are many of these complaint sessions, as I have observed and participated in them); and, that academics in Canada, beyond unions, have not formed anything resembling a radical movement that directly grapples with transforming the social position and politics of the university. Given that SSHRC is largely run by scholars who volunteer for, or are invited to serve, and is constituted and funded by the state, the apparent lack of political “noise” by scholars will surely not prompt any significant changes within SSHRC. The wider public is simply not well informed, or not informed at all, about SSHRC, and hence there is rarely any mention of SSHRC in terms of public political debate in the mass media. SSHRC is simply not on the public’s radar screen. Inertia is always a factor. Of course the silence to which I allude is not absolute: it’s that the questioning is not vigorous, direct, and prominent.

I must point out that we do have the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS). The CFHSS was originally created by Canadian scholars in the 1940s and relied on funding from the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, among other American philanthropic trusts, in order to survive. The CFHSS is supposed to act as an advocate for social sciences and humanities researchers, and has done so in select moments in the past — indeed, to date it has published numerous statements on open access, copyright, e-publishing, research ethics, and various position papers presented to the government concerning funding. Part of its own funding comes directly from SSHRC, and it represents a wide variety of interests, from researchers, to associations, to scholarly publishers, to universities — possibly too broad a spectrum for meaningful, transformative political action.

A basic structure for mobilizing scholars therefore does exist but could be better utilized. For now, the CFHSS is largely part of the status quo, with its most prominent functions being to sponsor gargantuan multidisciplinary conferences (the “Learneds” congresses) and to help fund various scholarly publications. In fact, one of the few “progressive” features of the CFHSS today is that it is directed and staffed almost entirely by women. Another positive feature has been its conversion to open access of books that have benefited from its Aid to Scholarly Publications Program and received its Scholarly Book Prize. Otherwise, I can attest, and will insist, that the CFHSS has been a minimal presence in my life as an academic in Canada — most times I am barely aware of its existence (I accidentally “re-discovered” it for the purpose of research for this article), and I have no idea how one even gets involved in the organization.

[Update: Thanks to a colleague for reminding me that the Canadian Anthropology Association is not a member of the CFHSS, and therefore anthropologists remain unrepresented at that level]

Two More Problems for Funded Research

In the previous articles I linked to above, I already delved into a series of problems and constraints posed for social science research by the nature of funding. Here are two more problem areas.

INNOVATION: SSHRC makes many claims about supporting innovative research programs and its creation of new funding opportunities. This is a problem in itself: with restricted funds, the multiplication of programs and the heaping of restrictions on each program means that basic research funding in the form of the “standard research grant” is increasingly strangled. Beyond this, it is very questionable that SSHRC supports research innovation when its grant application procedures have a heavy conservative bent, almost promoting stasis. For example, I have heard from too many colleagues that when they try to apply for funding to undertake a new research project, rather than continue an old one, they are almost always denied — their applications are rejected, at least in part on the premise that they have little or no research background in the new area of research that they wish to undertake. Let’s take a closer look at SSHRC application guidelines for the Standard Research Grant. Within the application guidelines we find the following:

Situate the proposed research in context of the relevant scholarly literature.
[But what if the scholarly literature is slim on a particular topic? Then reviewers have a choice to make: either they believe that the research program is truly innovative, or, as tends to be the case, they second-guess the applicant, and instead suggest that the literature review was inadequate. Moreover, this kind of language that SSHRC adopts promotes the kind of arid niche-seeking that is coming to dominate academia, with too many looking for research “gaps”. Sometimes, some things have not been studied because they are simply not worth studying.]

Explain the relationship and relevance of the proposed research to your ongoing research. [And there it is, plainly stated. “I have no ongoing research, I wish to do something brand new, I am fed up and bored with what I have been doing. The proposed research is almost entirely irrelevant and totally unrelated to my past research!” One can just imagine how reviewers, who are in practice almost always conservative and blush indignant with any challenge, would receive such a statement.]

If the proposal represents a significant change of direction from your previous research, describe how it relates to experiences and insights gained from earlier research achievements. [There is more room for ambiguity here, perhaps. However, again the tendency for SSHRC is to tie you to what you did in the past, which again is not a recipe for innovation.]

C. Description of previous and ongoing research results
In this section, summarize the results of your most recent and ongoing research grants. Note, where appropriate, the relevance of each to the proposed research program.
[Once more, and this is at least the third time, SSHRC demands that you remain accountable to the past.]

MATCHING THE STATUS OF “SCIENCE”: As I understood the situation, thanks to Dr. Marc Renaud (Sociologist, U. de Montréal), a past President of SSHRC — more than two thirds of Canadian university students are in the social sciences, and yet funding for the social sciences is less than a third of what it is for the natural sciences. And yet SSHRC is challenged by one politician to account for itself in comparison to scientific-funding agencies. SSHRC public affairs chief Garth Williams said:

SSHRC’s peer review process matches up well with more science-oriented funding agencies: “Experts in the different fields evaluate the track records of the researchers [seeking funding] and the quality of the proposals. It’s rigorous and extremely competitive.” (McGill Reporter, February 8, 2001)

What Solutions am I Proposing?

A good question would be: “Hey Max, who cares about what you propose?” Another good question would be: “Hey Max, who asked you, eh?”

To answer the first question: Nobody. To answer the second question: Nobody. And that is precisely why I write in public, because my two answers here are identical to the two answers that would be honestly given by many of my colleagues in Canada, which is why they remain publicly silent (largely silent) as individuals, and why they are being represented by cautiously quiet agencies, and why they remain alienated by a system that governs them. Caution, care, silence: these might be effective for bringing about very slow change, but they are even better for bringing about no change at all.

Thus here is my provisional list of proposed solutions, my contingent manifesto:

These are public funds we are talking about, and if the public does not want any of its money to be in our hands, then the public ought to take back the money. Until the public does so, however, no one agency, no one university, can lay a greater claim to public money than anyone else. SSHRC has become a tool for the intervention of federalist politics, when the Provinces are supposed to be in charge of funding education. Therefore, at least (1) start by devolving all funding resources to the Provinces, at least on a per capita basis. SSHRC has also become a tool for maintaining regional inequalities, with already heavily funded and endowed universities getting proportionately more than others. These heavily financed universities are also located in the centres of Canadian economic growth and development (Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver). Where does proportionately less research funding go? Sydney (Nova Scotia), Saskatoon, Moncton, Winnipeg, and so forth. And yet the boast is that Canada offers its citizen students the same opportunities no matter where they happen to live, no matter where they were born in Canada. That is simply not true.

Given that some universities are overfed with public research funds, then at least (2) start by allocating research funds to universities on a per capita basis that combines the number of students and faculty in some reasonable form. And, as argued previously, (2a) consider creating permanent annual research funding for each professor with a research record. At the very least, the devotion of a vast number of working hours to preparing and/or reviewing funding applications would be better spent on research itself, or disseminating that research.

These two steps, combined, respect the autonomy of Provinces, and the autonomy of universities. Doing otherwise is contrary to the law, as a matter of fact, since both principles are enshrined in federal and provincial law.

Quebec, incidentally, has its very own funding agencies (see FQRSC and FQRNT), which is a very smart, big first step (of course, Quebec also has its own laws, its own foreign representation, its own media, etc.). Now it needs to devolve that research funding to its universities. Otherwise the question is: what is the state scared of? Is it afraid that academics might have their own ideas about how to fund their own work?

An aside:
I trust negotiations within my university about what to fund and to what degree, and what are the appropriate requirements, far more than I do SSHRC. Indeed, the positive results of local and internal decision making have been subverted by negative cultural practices that take the form of snobbery. Universities currently do have limited and minimal internal funding, and given that artificial and arbitrarily restrictive requirements are not in place as with most SSHRC programs, these much smaller amounts are usually easier for researchers to gain. But, as I was told by one university Dean during a job interview: “Don’t tell me about any internal grants you got! We all get those.” Well, that should be good news, and we should all get more of these. Are we really going to get picky, snobby, trendy, and elitist about research funding? That’s just a first step in research production — if you are going to be so crassly boastful, at least wait until you get prestigious awards for your work before you start blowing your trumpet. But this “tell me where you got your funding” attitude is one that I personally find is vulgar, almost grotesque, but perfectly adequate for what is, after all, a capitalist institution.

There are too many straitjacketed (i.e., specialized) research programs created by SSHRC, and all of them share one central assumption: that a researcher has one research program. Yet, many of us have a cluster of numerous small projects that do not necessarily tie into each other, short term projects that may result in single reports, that could occasion the hiring of student research assistants. While not dismissing funding for specialized research, I would argue that (3) we need to consider allocating “general research funds” that support multiple small research projects with no unifying theme in common. This is vital: researchers will, one hopes, have their curiosity stimulated by the unforeseen implications of a current research project, and begin to diversify and branch out, attempt a few small projects, delve into spin-off areas, or develop new interests altogether. If we want innovation, then we need to reconsider the current mode of streamlining.

One of the most critical flaws of the current mode of centralized, federalized, research funding is that it assumes — incorrectly — that there is a single, universal research landscape in Canada (or maybe it does not assume it, but rather wishes to create it, which is more sinister). The fact of the matter is that, by either design or by chance, many universities have unique clusters of research interests and specializations that are not duplicated elsewhere. In anthropology this is an almost mandatory reality in Canada: we have a hybrid model of four-field anthropology departments, social anthropology departments, and sociology-anthropology departments. My university is currently developing what it calls “signature areas” that distinguish it from other universities, to attract students not because we do the same thing everybody else does, but because we do not. Those signature areas may not map onto SSHRC’s structure of research funding, perhaps not neatly, perhaps in some cases not at all. Therefore, I suggest that (4) we consider universities to be the best stewards for special and new research programs that better speak to their individual strengths, and that are in the best position to nurture and evaluate those research programs.

Collaboration between researchers across universities would still be possible, indeed there is nothing that has been put forth thus far that would raise any impediment to such collaboration.

The ability of autonomous, local decision-making structures would not only better help to foster new research programs, it would go some distance toward diminishing the alienation suffered by so many academics in Canada, for whom governance is not an opportunity, but a series of sour constraints. We need to get past the SSHRC model, of the unitary, federal brain that can envision and predict all possibilities, that seeks to administer and dictate from the centre. We need more than just “consultation,” we need direct participation.

2 thoughts on “Looking Beyond SSHRC: Decentralizing and Opening Research Funding (1.3)

  1. Pingback: Political Reactions to SSHRC Funding: Bloc Québécois « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

  2. Pingback: The Funding of the University: Shaping the Conditions for Higher Education « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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