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Canada’s innovation policy needs more humanities and social sciences, FedCan meeting told

“We have not been aggressive enough in our role in innovation,” says Richard Hawkins at the annual conference of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.


The Government of Canada launched discussions on a new “innovation agenda” for the country last June and several organizations have already sent in proposals and feedback. According to the government’s innovation website, “clear outcomes and targets will be used to measure progress toward the vision of positioning Canada as a global leader in promoting research, accelerating business growth, and propelling entrepreneurs from the commercialization and start-up stages to international success.”

However, some social sciences and humanities scholars take issue with the rhetoric that the government is using to define innovation.

“What the government wants is more new things being invented in our engineering labs. They want us to take those things, patent them, form new technology companies, commercialize them and then have them hopefully turn into Apple or Microsoft,” said Richard Hawkins at the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences annual conference on November 9. Dr. Hawkins is a professor in the department of communication, media and film at the University of Calgary.

Dr. Hawkins, who previously held the Canada Research Chair in the Social Context of Technology, argued that the government is not focusing enough on the social sciences and humanities, and what scholars in those fields can offer. He said that researchers in the humanities need to use the same language as policymakers in order to make a case for more federal funding for their disciplines – a point the federation underlined in its submission to the minister of innovation, science and economic development, Navdeep Bains. The federation’s submission includes, among other things, a request for social sciences funding to increase from 15 to 20 percent of total research grant funds.

“The main thing the government wants is [for] the economy to diversify. They want all of these immediate, practical benefits, and then they are hoping that all of these other kinds of things can accrue from that. So I think we have to start by making a case for ourselves in the relevance of the work that we do,” Dr. Hawkins said.

Dr. Hawkins also took issue with the federal government’s definition of innovation. He said it is focused mainly on technical change, which he characterized as a misinformed and biased view of the innovation process.

Dr. Hawkins views innovation more as the “process of creating value from change,” he said. “The government wants things to be simple, and the pipeline is the kind of model that makes the most immediate sense to them, so that’s what they pursue. It’s not as if it’s not based in knowledge, but it doesn’t really reflect what that knowledge is, and that’s a problem.”

Fellow presenter David Wolfe, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto Mississauga and co-director of the Innovation Policy Lab, also expressed concern about the way the government is going about developing its new innovation policy.

“I started out in the spring being hugely optimistic about its [the innovation policy’s] potential and I have been ratcheting my expectations down steadily, and they are now pretty minimal. … The government has created a very confusing and conflicted policy process for developing an innovation agenda. And that’s never a recipe for good policy,” he said.

Dr. Wolfe explained that there are many findings and much insight on innovation policy by scholars in Canada and around the world from the last several decades that the government seems to be largely ignoring. “We have a much better idea today, from this policy literature, of what works, what doesn’t work. And yet, I see little reflection of it to date in what is coming from government policy-makers.”

Both he and Dr. Hawkins stressed that scholars in the humanities and social sciences need to make their voices heard by the government about the importance of their work. “We have a problem as social scientists in that we are not vocal enough. We have not been aggressive enough in our role in innovation,” said Dr. Hawkins.

Check out the full presentation of both speakers:

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  1. Henry Gomez / November 25, 2016 at 15:50

    Professors Hawkins and Wolfe make the point quite well. Education’s emphasis on technological innovation, especially digitech, has taken us to “new” heights as we make our way back to the future. It has enabled military and industrial leaders to weaponize space and to embark on interplanetary travel. However, without a balanced emphasis on the humanities and social sciences, it has also made it easier (and maybe even less challenged) for those leaders to endanger the entire planet and the survival of the species. We have entered a different age in which the universe is saying no to WW111. Take a stand for the humanities and social sciences and help to bring about balance.

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