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Margin Notes

Congress ’09 – The value of social sciences and humanities research

It seems to me the "value proposition" of research in the social sciences and humanities is fairly obvious, but I also understand that the case needs to be made nonetheless.


Having spent most of this week at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Carleton University, I fell into a bit of a reverie while on my way to Congress yesterday, musing about how the social sciences and humanities inform so much of the human endeavour.

I was riding the bus (urban studies, geography); passed by Parliament Hill and the shops of Bank Street (political science, economics, law, public administration, history, business administration); saw children playing in a school yard (education, recreation); glanced at the mix of other passengers (sociology, linguistics, demography); and contemplated their habits, and the devices and reading materials they were using (anthropology, religious studies, communication, literature). I’ve left lots out, but you get the idea.

It seems to me the “value proposition” of research in the social sciences and humanities is fairly obvious, but I also understand that the case needs to be made nonetheless.

Academic leaders are, of course, aware of this. They feel the pressure from government and funding agencies to demonstrate that their funding does make a difference. And they also understand that each time they call for increased funding, there will be more accountability expected.

At a session of Congress yesterday (“Capturing the Impacts of Publicly Funded Social Sciences and Humanities Research,” sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), SSHRC president Chad Gaffield said we need do better at  “tell[ing] the story of our contributions to Canada.”

What followed was a lengthy discussion by three panellists about the types of metrics that might be used to measure research outcomes. It’s not an easy task. Claire Donovan, a research fellow at the Australian National University, opined that “this kind of value can’t be measured by simple metrics,” adding that meaningful impact assessments must strive to measure the wider social, economic and cultural value of the research.

York University vice-president for research, Stan Shapson, summed it up thus: “If we don’t collect the data, we’re going to be left out [of the innovation agenda]. We must measure, no matter how complex it is. We don’t have a choice.”

Beyond metrics, the research community is looking at other ways to increase the impact of their work, speaking nowadays of “knowledge mobilization” and a more collaborative, two-way flow of knowledge with community partners, NGOs and other players.

Despite all this, I do think the general public understands the value of social sciences and humanities research at a certain abstract level. (Although far from scientific, nearly three-quarters of respondents to a recent poll on the Globe and Mail site said the social sciences and arts are underfunded and “as important as science and technology.”)

Yet, we also need to recognize that there is a subset of people who find great delight in mocking this type of research. I was horrified, for instance, to read on the same Globe and Mail website the comments in response to an article this past Monday about the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences asking the federal government to increase SSHRC funding.

Such as this comment: “Social sciences? people watchers. Waste of money, no need for social engineers or their stupid ideas like political correctness, fire the lot.” Or this: “I don’t see any difference between these pseudo scientists and habitual welfare recipients. Why can’t these ‘educated’ people stand on their own feet by earning through their research. They can’t, because most of their ‘research’ are garbage [sic].”

It would be easy to dismiss these people as cranks, but we must assume this is their sincere view, which is troubling. I wonder, when did it become fashionable to be so aggressively proud of one’s ignorance? And how is it that these online comment forums have spawned such rudeness and incivility? Any philosopher out there willing to offer a theory? Or psychologist, communication theorist, sociologist?

It would be a great topic for research.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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