Government's research agenda incomplete without attention to the human sciences

Monday, December 21, 2015


This op-ed was published in RE$EARCH MONEY on December 21, 2015.

Jean-Marc Mangin, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

We've now had nearly two months to watch a new national government find its feet and flesh out its major science policies. While there have been some important and welcome announcements, we should be careful to address potential blind spots—particularly relating to the human-focused research—that could seriously limit future innovation and prosperity in Canada if ignored.

We have heard how our new government is fulfilling its commitment to restore the long-form census — arguably the single greatest contribution the new government could have made to science in Canada in its first weeks in office. We are also pleased to see the government commit to supporting scientists in the federal public service and their ability to contribute to both scientific dialogue and the public policy process. 

By supporting its own scientists, the new government is demonstrating its commitment to a more transparent, consultative and collaborative governing style. We hope to see this commitment further strengthened with the appointment of an effective Chief Science Officer, a position that is currently being developed by the new minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan. 

All of these developments are worth applauding. Yet, when we look at the bigger picture of science in Canada, we see that important elements are still missing. In particular there has been a lack of attention to the sciences that relate to people and the relationships, institutions and the communities they rely on. This blind spot will not serve decision makers well.

Consider this government's current policy priorities: settling refugees, implementing the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, addressing challenges relating to climate change, crafting new legislation around end-of-life medical treatment, and so on. These issues are all fundamentally rooted in humans and how they interact with each other—areas where researchers in the humanities and social sciences excel. 

And yet these issues don't seem to fall within the government's idea of "science." This absence starts in minister Duncan's mandate letter, which is focused almost exclusively on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) — important as these are.

We know that work in the humanities and social sciences is fundamental to the prosperity and well-being of Canadians. For instance, Canadian multiculturalism is regularly described as one of our country's most important competitive advantages—if not its most important. It allows us to attract and utilize enormously valuable global and local talent. And how was it facilitated? In large part by taking evidence from social science research and embedding it into our public institutions. Technical innovations did not build Canada's successful multicultural communities. Social innovations did.


But we also know that the research landscape in Canada is slanted away from the social, community and individual level. More than half of Canada's university faculty are in the humanities and social sciences, and yet the funding body that primarily supports their research (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) accounts for just 15 percent of Canada's granting dollars. 

This is not a healthy state of affairs for a country that wants to remain innovative and prosperous. Considering that 75% of Canada's GDP comes from the service sector, it's easy to see that our prosperity in the decades to come will rely more on social than technical innovations (although the two are far more closely related than Canada's current innovation policies would suggest).

We can begin to correct this imbalance with a few smart policy decisions. 

First, basic funding to Canada's major research granting councils should be gradually increased to help Canada catch up the average R&D spending levels of OECD countries by the end of this government's mandate. The private sector also has a major role to play in improving Canada's R&D performance, and we need to see more progress on implementing the recommendations of the 2011 federal R&D Panel led by Tom Jenkins. 

Second, increases in research funding should be weighted in favour of the humanities and social sciences to rebalance the disproportionately low share these disciplines have received in the past. Over time, Canada needs to ensure more equitable, predictable funding for these disciplines to maximize learning and gains from the insights social scientists and humanists offer for Canada's future. 

Third, evidence from a full spectrum of research areas should play its appropriate role in the public policy process. Our new government has already made positive commitments to engage in evidence-based decision making. What's missing is the clear recognition that we need evidence from all forms of science to make responsible decisions. 

To be effective, the new Chief Science Officer must be part of the central machinery of government, positioned to understand the policy context, able to integrate insights from all disciplines, and be a superb communicator. However, creating a Chief Science Officer is not on its own sufficient to democratize science advice. Parliamentary committees should be able to make full use of Canada's abundant research insights in their deliberations, calling on postsecondary institutions, scholarly associations and non-profit organizations in all scientific disciplines.

We are deeply encouraged that the Canadian government is adopting a mindset that embraces transparency, collaboration and evidence from research. The country as a whole is sure to benefit from the kinds of public decisions that emerge in such an environment. We encourage our new government to stay the course and remember that knowledge comes in many forms. 

Canada must not only aim to be "back". It must forge ahead with an ambitious and inclusive science agenda. Many of the complex problems Canadians face today are rooted in how people interact with one another. Fortunately, we have disciplines that provide insight into addressing precisely such challenges. With the appropriate support and attention, they will help Canada innovate and prosper in the turbulent world in which we live.

Jean-Marc Mangin is executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.