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From the admin chair

Big ideas require many partners

Convergence is in the air.


October 22, 2014, I was in lockdown in the Ottawa Convention Centre. I had arrived there for a meeting at 9:30 a.m. after  walking with a colleague from our hotel. On our way, we had stopped briefly at the War Memorial as we talked about upcoming Remembrance Day activities in Halifax.

I had many thoughts sitting in lockdown, mainly about the perpetrator of those terrible acts that day. I wondered, is he mentally ill? Is he a radicalized youth? How do young people become radicalized? What can we learn from what is happening in other countries? As the endless tweets from the outside world streamed into my computer, I also wondered how social media and big data fit into what was happening.

With these questions still in my mind over the next few days, I learned of a postdoc at Dalhousie University, Amarnath Amarasingam, who works with Michael Ungar, principal investigator of the Network of Centres of Excellence Knowledge Mobilization project on Children and Youth in Challenging Contexts. Together, they are involved in a large-scale study of Canadian youth who are not becoming radicalized, and exploring what makes them resilient.

I called Dr. Amarasingam and our conversation led to a set of “why not” proposals that are worth exploring:

  • launch a multidisciplinary study of mental health issues combined with research into social, political, legal and cultural issues related to the radicalization of youth;
  • involve informatics experts and computer scientists to delve into the social media and data aspects of this phenomenon;
  • include international researchers who are doing work on the same phenomenon in other countries;
  • access joint funding from all three Canadian research granting councils for this research and aim for international funding, as well as funding from philanthropic organizations;
  • partner with leaders in other sectors such as community leaders, religious leaders, social service providers, lawyers, teachers, the RCMP, CSIS and government policy analysts;
  • develop a rapid-response think-tank to come together quickly in order to plan out what is needed to address the radicalization of youth and how leaders from across sectors could converge on addressing this issue of importance to our country.

Ten days later, at a SSHRC event on Imagining Canada’s Future, I shared my thoughts about how today’s global problems compel us to rethink how we can create the convergence of people, ideas, actions and funding across disciplines, nations, sectors, and how we can do so in a rapid-response mode. It would also require our research funding partners, both governmental and non-governmental, to think about how we might fund initiatives somewhat differently in Canada.

One of the three councils, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, has found a way to fund Canadian university research in rapid response to infectious diseases such as the recent funding for Ebola or when the SARS virus hit Canada. Can something similar be done for social issues such as the murder and disappearance of Aboriginal women, global security breaches, environmental disasters and financial crises? New, simpler and more efficient ways to access funding for urgent social issues are needed.

On reflection, I realized that I had first noticed articles about the radicalization of Canadian youth two years ago. In many ways, then, it was not unexpected that a postdoctoral scholar would be called upon by the media to comment on this subject. Postdocs are freer to pursue a timely topic. They are not constrained by examinations, comprehensives and thesis proposals in the way doctoral students are. They do not have the teaching and previous research and grant commitments that many scholars and scientists do.

Additionally, as we pursue quicker response modes to plan action on urgent issues, our Networks of Centres of Excellence could be called upon to set up rapid-response workshops, teams and calls for proposals with their pan-national researchers and international colleagues. We might think about how the Royal Society or the Council of Canadian Academies could become engaged in forming rapid-response expert panels.

Canada could also consider articulating strategic priorities for social and cultural issues the way it does with science and technology. Science and technology priorities are decided through the Science Technology and Innovation Council. Should we consider having a council for national social and cultural priorities?

Martha Crago
Martha Crago is vice-president, research, at Dalhousie University. Her column appears in every second issue of University Affairs.
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