The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada - an Interview with its President Chad Gaffield

bridges vol. 21, April 2009 / Feature Articles

By Caroline Adenberger

bridges: In May 2007, the Canadian government introduced a science & technology (S&T) strategy "Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada's Advantage." This far-reaching strategy defines a 10-year national agenda for Canadian S&T across all sectors, and is designed to turn ideas into innovations that provide solutions to environmental, health, and other social challenges, while also improving economic competitiveness. Two years later, would you say that Canada is on track to reach its set goals?

Chad Gaffield

Gaffield: From my perspective, we have made good progress. SSHRC's programs are organized along strategic outcomes that contribute significantly to the Science and Technology (S&T) Strategy's People, Research and Entrepreneurial Advantages. Currently, more than 25% of our budget directly supports the four priority areas identified by the Government in the Strategy: environmental science and technologies; natural resources and energy; health and related life sciences and technologies; and information and communications technologies. Furthermore, SSHRC is playing an important role insupporting the research, the development of talent, and knowledge mobilization activities that promote innovation in management, entrepreneurship and sustainable economic development practices. These activities are funded in part by an $11 million annual allocation to support research in management, business and finance, announced in Budget 2007 from the Government of Canada. And, of course, we are investing in the development of talented, creative and innovative leaders who can contribute across all sectors. Together we are contributing to the implementation of the S&T strategy to make Canada a global economic leader through world-class research, a highly skilled workforce and strong partnerships across business, academic and public sectors. As well, we have reinforced even more our collaborations with the other granting agencies, both in terms of policy and research support.

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bridges: The social sciences and the humanities (SSH) often stand a bit in the shadow of the so-called "hard sciences." As president of the SSHRC, how do you ensure that SSH receive both the recognition and the resources they deserve?

Gaffield: I think about this question quite a bit. It is very  important to recognize that as a society, we have a strong need to better understand the social and human implications of our endeavours, even those that appear to be primarily scientific or technological. Research-based advances in technology must be accompanied by building new knowledge and understanding of the related economic, social and cultural consequencesand impacts of innovation. Stem cell research is a great example of this. We may have made leaps and bounds scientifically speaking, but the social, ethical, and economic implications of this research have yet to be fully realized.  Another example of importance to Canadians is the question of culture; that is, how we define it, how we promote it, why is it important?  The social sciences and humanities are uniquely positioned to address these questions.  And, of course, on the human behaviour front, the recent economic downturn is a result of the choices individuals, business and governments have made. Understanding the social and economic factors that contributed to this situation can help the world - its decision-makers and citizens - find a path out ofit. The social sciences and humanities are fundamental to understanding and addressing concerns that affect the daily lives of people, as workers, parents, leaders and citizens. In essence, when a debate around issues that affect the world is framed by solid research, that is when the social sciences and humanities show their true value, and I will continue to advocate for their far-reaching benefits, especially for our prospects in the rapidly changing 21st century.

bridges: In March 2008, a report was published on the economic impact of SSH in Canada. What conclusions did the report reach, and how did they impact your mission as SSHRC president?

Gaffield: The report indicated that there is a tremendous potential for the social sciences and humanities to contribute to the S&T strategy as the social sciences and humanities are aligned with all three advantages:  entrepreneurial, knowledge and people.  

Vast parts of our economy are in the business of creating or trading products and services that rely directly on the social sciences and humanities and about two-thirds of all industry sectors can be described as "social sciences and humanities industries" - industries whose primary knowledge input comes from the humanities and social sciences or that sell services (e.g., banking) or goods (e.g., television programs) in our disciplines. Furthermore, humanities and social sciences industries employ about three-quarters of all workers in Canada. One such industry - finance, insurance and real estate ("FIRE") - generates more GDP than all of manufacturing, for example. The social sciences and humanities contributes ideas, methods, people, etc. that impact industries whose primary knowledge input comes from the "hard sciences". And yet, there is virtually no literature on the economic role and influence of our disciplines. Authoritative sources such as the OECD are beginning to recognize the direct and indirect role and influence of the humanities and social sciences  on innovation and competitiveness.  Our disciplines lie at the core of many of today's (and tomorrow's) "knowledge-based industries" (computer games, educational software,etc.).

The ideas in the report help to discuss the impact of the investment in the social sciences and humanities, in concrete terms. SSHRC is now engaging with  leaders in the public, private and NGO sector, to build greater awareness and support for social sciences and humanities research.

bridges: The year 2008 has been an eventful one for Canadian science policy: On the one hand the Office of the National Science Advisor was closed; on the other hand Canada received its first junior minister for S&T with the appointment of Gary Goodyear. In hindsight, what effects did those two events have on the Canadian S&T landscape?

Gaffield: The Canadian S&T landscape has indeed seen some changes over the last two years. The creation of a junior minister position for S&T within the cabinet of the Prime Minister raises the profile of the S&T portfolio, and affirms the government's continuing commitment to its S&T strategy of 2007. The S&T system is large and complex, and research itself takes time to produce results. Having aminister for S&T will help to ensure that momentum is maintained.

At SSHRC, we have been actively strengthening our corporate governance. While the Governing Council continues to be guided by members of the academic community, we have a greater diversity in membership from the larger society, including several business leaders. This brings greater depth in governance and decision-making that help to serve the needs and interests of all Canadians.

bridges: Like many other countries, Canada has had to make tough budget decisions in the face of the current economic situation. However, it is devoting an impressive sum of some $3.5 billion to science and technology, mainly for infrastructure projects. Some have criticized the budget decision as not adequately addressing the investment in human capital. Do you think this criticism is justified?

Gaffield: At SSHRC, we invest as effectively and efficiently as possible to support the best students and scholars in Canada.  We devote one-third of our budget to funding scholarships and fellowships that allow top students to undertake graduate programs in  preparation for careers in all sectors of society. We know that SSHRC-funded research projects enhance the quality of the graduate experience by offering students the opportunity to work with Canada's most accomplished scholars - and some of the world's most significant research initiatives.

bridges: In this year's budget, all three granting councils that fund S&T research in Canada (the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the SSHRC) were denied any increase in their current budgets - not even an inflation-covering increase was granted. How will this affect SSHRC's day-to-day business?

Gaffield: SSHRC will continue to support and promote excellence in university-based research and training. Through our programs, we will enable the highest levels of research excellence in Canada, and facilitate knowledge-sharing and collaboration across research disciplines, universities and all sectors of society. These activities will be undertaken within the context of SSHRC's continued pursuit of its three key ambitions, as outlined in Framing Our Direction:

    • To enhance the quality of, and support for, research and research training in the social sciences and humanities;


    • To enable connections among disciplines, including those in engineering and the natural and health sciences, as well as between research and the larger community, in Canada and in the rest of the world; and


  • To increase the impact of research and research training for the benefit of society.

We continue to pursue major initiatives to enhance our impact andeffectiveness. For example, we are undertaking a systematic internal review of all programs, policies and regulations to update them and facilitate application and administration. We are continuing our efforts to increase collaborations among federal funding agencies and to pool our resources internationally to focus research efforts on major issues. We will also continue significant undertakings such as the Blue Ribbon Panel review of the peer-review process. The panel's report concluded that SSHRC's peer-review system is "up to the best practices and highest international standards," while offering a list of recommendations aimed at ensuring that our processes remain sustainable, efficient and world-class.

bridges: In September 2008, two new programs to attract excellent researchers to Canada were announced by the Canadian government: the Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program and the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship Program (Vanier CGS). Can you tell us about those programs and how you expect them to benefit Canada as a center for international excellence in research?

Gaffield: The Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) program, created in recognition that Canada's future prosperity depends on the ability to attract the highest calibre of researchers to this country, will help Canada compete in the international market for research talent by offering prestigious awards with exceptional monetary value to global research leaders. The program will award 20 Chair holders and their research teams with up to $10M over seven years to establish ambitious research programs at Canadian universities.

Branding Canada as a global centre for research excellence is a government priority that will be achieved with the CERC program. Previous investments in research, including the creation of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program and increased investments in the three federal funding agencies have built a strong research capacity in Canada. The creation of the CERC program will allow universities to capitalize on previous investments and facilitate the pursuit of excellence in research in strategic areas.

The research teams funded through the CERC program will help Canada build acritical mass of expertise in the four priority areas outlined in the Government's 2007 S&T strategy:  environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences, and technologies and information and communication technologies. In the first competition, at least one Chair will be allocated to research under one or more of the priority areas that is of direct benefit to the automotive industry.

The CERC program willbring many important benefits to Canada's universities and to all Canadians. The program will enable universities to attract world-class research leaders who can positively contribute to our global competitiveness and future prosperity. The cutting-edge research conducted by the global leaders who receive a Chair will spur innovation and the advancement of knowledge in this country.

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships Program (Vanier CGS) will strengthen Canada's ability to attract and retain the world's top-tier doctoral students, both nationally and internationally, and make Canada a world leader in higher education research. The program is designed to attract and retain world-class doctoral students who demonstrate leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and health by offering them a significant financial award to assist them while they study. Beginning in spring 2009, a total of 166 scholarships valued at $50 000 each will be awarded annually, for up to three years. When fully operational, the program will support 500 students per year.

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships are targeted towards the top domestic and international doctoral students. The goal is to attract and retain the world's premier students and brand Canada as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. The program is part of the Government of Canada's Science and Technology Strategy announced in 2007. The program aims to promote the development and application of leading-edge knowledge, support the development of a world-class workforce and position Canada as a magnet for the world's top graduate students.
The program confirms Canada's standing as a global centre of excellence in research and higher learning. Canada's universities and all Canadians will benefit from prosperity and heightened qualityof life, as well as the greater learning opportunities for our university students this program provides.

bridges: A common challenge for the social sciences and humanities everywhere is how to better interact and collaborate with the private sectors and industry. Do you have any special strategy in mind for addressing this issue?

Gaffield: Precisely to address this challenge, one of my first priorities was the creation of a Partnerships Directorate with the mandate to build and maintain relationships, mechanisms and programs, both among the research community and between the university community and the greater society.  Among its activities, the  Directorate will  facilitate andenable research and knowledge mobilization through effective programand related policy development through consultation with public, private sector and not-for-profit organizations.  A strategy has been developed to foster multi-disciplinarity through collaborative research support activities and to establish formal partnerships at various levels according to a broad strategy and related policies, guidelines and protocols.

Formal partnerships can either take the form of joint initiatives between SSHRC and another organization, such as the International Development Research Council, or take the form of mechanisms  that foster partnerships, such as our Community University Research Alliance program. Our intent is to develop or expand on abroad range of collaborative activities and to seek opportunities to leverage resources through partnerships.  

bridges: The United States just approved the injection of billions of dollars into the R&D enterprise, with its Stimulus Package: more than US $21.5billion in addition to the regular annual R&D budget. How, if at all, do you think this might affect Canadian R&D?

Gaffield: Research has always been an international endeavour. I believe that good research transcends borders, and with scientific research funding on the rise in the United States, we can all benefit.  Not only is this a positive measure for U.S. researchers, but it validates the importance of research in general. Moreover, this may present some real opportunities for Canadian researchers to form partnerships with our U.S. counterparts.

bridges: You are halfway through your five-year appointment as head of the SSHRC. What do you consider your greatest accomplishments so far, and what issues do you want to tackle during the remainder of your term?

Gaffield:I believe that there has been significant progress achieved in terms of our strategic ambitions - Quality, Connections, Impact - both internally in strengthening our organization and externally, in partnership with  the research community and with the larger society. We have attracted the right people to the right positions, working at top efficiency with the right structures in place and developed a cohesive high-performing team. SSHRC has assumed a leading role in shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration across the research community and has simplified and harmonized programs and policies to foster world-class research by promoting a results-oriented focus on activities undertaken within and across divisions. We have striven to improve the conceptualization and measurement of the benefits of research, and, therefore, been able to enhance the reporting and promotion of  research in the larger society. Finally, I would add that SSHRC has increased its communication and collaboration with the larger society, as we have fully embraced our accountability and responsibility therein.

SSHRC's aims to be recognized as one of the world's top research councils; pursuit of this goal will ensure that SSHRC continues to increase its contributions to Canada and the world in the 21st century.


The author, Caroline Adenberger, is the editor of bridges and the deputy director of the Office of Science & Technology at the Embassy of Austria in Washington, D.C.