After writing about SSHRC a couple of weeks ago one very loyal reader requested that I elaborate on the point that the social sciences and humanities are treated well in Canada compared to other countries. I’m a sucker for loyal readers, so:
I’ll say straight off that that comparing national granting council budgets is tricky because there are some significant structural differences in the way research gets funded in different countries (i.e., not all funding goes through granting councils). When reading what’s below, remember I am likely missing some important mitigating factors that might affect the comparison. If you spot any, let me know – I’ll be happy to print corrections to any biases I may have here.
With that caveat, let’s check out how the rest of the English-speaking world funds granting councils.
Canada’s total granting council budget is split 43.7%-41.6%-14.6% between NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC. In the U.K., there are 6 councils which grant directly to researchers – one for Medicine, one for Arts & Humanities, another for Economic and Social Research, and three in the sciences (Biotech/Biology, Engineering and Physics, and Natural Environment). Mapping this to Canadian categories, the split is 64.7% to NSERC equivalents, 22.6% to Medicine and 12.7% to SSHRC equivalents. In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) takes about 52% of the overall research budget, and the Australian Research Council (ARC) gets the rest. Parsing out 2009 ARC grants by disciplines gets you a figure of 13.2% of the total budget going to SSHRC subjects and 34.5% going to NSERC subjects.
The United States is the real outlier here. There is a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), but very little of its money goes to scholarship – it’s closer to the Canada Council than it is to SSHRC. The National Science Foundation’s budget is not easy to analyse, but excluding hard-to-classify stuff like Arctic research and “general education programs,” I find $4.3 billion going to researchers in NSERC disciplines and $247 million going to researchers in SSHRC disciplines. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives out a whopping $25 billion in competitive grants – which is more than three times the NSF and NEH combined.
So, Canada comes out tops on social sciences and humanities funding, though not by a huge margin. Where researchers here might have a complaint is that so much SSHRC funding is dedicated to graduate scholarships – pull those out and look only at funding for research projects and Canada’s total might not look quite as good for those in the social sciences and humanities.
The real question, of course, is “does this extra financing give us better research in the social sciences and humanities”? But I’ll leave that one to the Council of Canadian Academies.
I am a social scientist. I like the social sciences. I also like the humanities, even if I do find many people’s defense of the humanities to be shrill and weirdly ahistorical. So, naturally, I’m a fan of SSHRC.
What I am not a fan of, however, is some of the drivel that passes for advocacy on SSHRC’s behalf.
One argument that gets pulled out every once in awhile and which annoys me immensely is the one that says, “Social sciences and humanities have 55% of the professors but only get 15% of federal grant dollars” (or whatever the numbers happen to be this year). Sometimes this is phrased via applications, such as “1 in 3 professors/postdocs/grad students in sciences gets an NSERC grant compared to only 1 in 9 in the social sciences and humanities” (or whatever the numbers are this year).
These arguments aren’t wrong because the figures are wrong – the figures are immaterial. These arguments are wrong because they presuppose some kind cross-disciplinary equity which is neither true nor desirable.
Society is not under any obligation to give research grants to scholars. To the extent that it does, it will do so in pursuit of societal goals. Some of these will involve the social sciences and humanities, but it’s safe to say that most will not. There is no country in the world which divides research dollars equally by discipline; Canada, by and large, treats its social sciences and humanities extremely well (seriously – go check out the proportion of granting council dollars given to SSHRC disciplines in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and France and see if you still think Canada’s miserly on this front).
The idea that the underlying logic of research grant funding should be “equal treatment of scholars” rather than “spending money where society thinks it will bring greatest returns” is actually fairly offensive. It reeks of entitlement, for one thing, which is never a good start from a PR point of view.
SSHRC funds great work. Sure, there are duds, but that’s true at NSERC and CIHR, too. It’s the nature of the beast. Researchers in the social sciences and the humanities can and should make their case for funding on the social returns of their research, not on some half-baked notion of equality.
There was a great story by the Globe’s James Bradshaw in July on the fate of the $17.5 Million of SSHRC’s budget that was set aside by the Government of Canada for “business-related degrees” in the 2009 federal budget that didn’t get the attention it deserved on account of coming out too close to the Canada Day weekend. Basically, it revolved around Rotman’s Roger Martin’s assertion that the program was an “abject failure” because it went to almost everyone except MBA students.
What apparently eluded the scheme’s proponents was the fact that the “R” in SSHRC actually standards for “research.” And since MBAs tend not to do a lot of primary research, most of that money – not unreasonably – went to students doing “business-related” research in a variety of other fields.
What’s most interesting to me about Bradshaw’s story – apart from the obvious stuff about how the same community that whined about the PMO “directing” SSHRC to put aside a new pot of money for (horrors) business had no qualms at all about accepting PMO-directed money when it came under the label of the “digital economy” – is how the scheme’s authors (including Martin) came to think their original plan was a good idea.
Martin, apparently, was under the impression that SSHRC operates as a giant slush fund for grad students, and the story implies that what Martin thought he was getting with the 2009 budget was a pot of money that MBA students could use to offset their ever-heftier tuition fees. It’s easy to scoff at the naivete of this view, but it’s easy enough to see where he might have got this impression; directly or indirectly, something like two-thirds of SSHRC’s budget ends up with graduate students.
It makes you wonder: is SSHRC’s primary purpose to relieve institutions of the burden of funding all those social science graduate students? If institutions had to fund their own graduate students, would we have anything like as many graduates students in the arts as we do? Have we implicitly federalized the Social Sciences and Humanities, and if so, what should the implications of this be?