SSHRC is converting scholars into bureaucrats and scholarship into government reports, but all is not lost. Faculty must act to ensure their concerns are heard and debated.

Last December I had the privilege of attending the annual (since 2008) Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Leaders’ Workshop in Ottawa. With a few exceptions (myself included), the majority of the roughly 60 participants were associate deans, deans, and vice-presidents of research – each representing their home university. The idea hatched by SSHRC, but originally recommended by a “blue ribbon” panel of international experts, was to improve communication with university leaders in a position to champion SSHRC research.

Frankly, I expected the usual platitudes and incomprehension. Instead I found, on the one side, SSHRC representatives who were smart, thoroughly versed in the culture of research in Canada and abroad, and passionate about their work. On the other side, I found university administrators who were just as smart, candid, and informed as anyone about issues that matter to SSHRC researchers. This wasn’t just another pointless meeting signifying nothing but itself.

Even so, as director of a SSHRC-funded research institute I constantly hear complaints, never more so than during the fall, when colleagues write and finalize new applications for SSHRC,  and then again in the spring, when the majority will receive their rejection letters. Among those who fail, many will never again bother to take the time and effort to submit another application. It’s not just that no one likes rejection or that the committee decisions provided are often frustratingly vague about perceived inadequacies. It’s also that many (I’d guess most) humanities scholars don’t need any research money to conduct research. They need time – and, therefore, the  money needed to afford course release from heavy teaching loads. And since SSHRC isn’t in the business of providing funding for course release any more (which, in truth, it barely did anyway), then why bother applying at all? Who needs the aggravation and the likelihood of disappointment?

From the perspective of humanities researchers, in fact, the entire issue of grant money has become polarizing. People are not pleased and, I think, rightly so. Winning grant money has become, in the eyes of some, a rough proxy for scholarly excellence, while actual scholarship demonstrated by books and articles has been eclipsed. The bigger the grant, the better the scholar: damn the number and, most especially, the quality of the actual publications.

How did we get here? Under pressure from government, SSHRC morphed from being a conduit for curiosity-based research to a conduit for collaborative projects that favour research of “strategic” importance. On the one hand, this has been a fantastic development, since, at last, SSHRC researchers can win the kind of funding that was once reserved for industrial scientists. On the other hand, this has been a horrible development, since big money has shifted our research culture toward… big money.

The truth is that most researchers plugged  their noses at the change at SSHRC, made under Marc Renaud  a decade ago, since the sanctity (I say this because I mean it) the sanctity of curiosity-based research was nonetheless enshrined in the standard research grant (SRG). I remember very well how colleagues grilled Renault on just this issue, since we all feared that big money for strategic projects would drive out even small money for intellectual projects funded by the SRG. And our fears have been realized. Renault’s replacement at SSHRC, Chad Gaffield,  doesn’t even like the word “standard” in the “standard research grant” program. Why? Because it implies that other SSHRC research is somehow “not-standard”. So now the word is being phased out.

I regret this change, which is more than symbolic. At the risk of speaking perhaps too plainly, I’ll simply say that the SRG was called “standard” because it represented the gold standard of curiosity-based research excellence at Canadian universities. Period. Now that we are in the business of business, that is, in the business of generating monster projects across universities and across the tri-councils (plus the Canada Foundation for Innovation) ), this old view of things has been inverted. Its worst expression: money is not sought for scholarship but for the sake of generating more money.

I fear we have lost all sight of how important curiosity-based research has been for the culture of research in Canada – in the arts and the sciences, which also have a tradition of pure research – and how utterly demoralized humanities researchers in particular are at having suddenly been rendered antiques by a structural shift at SSHRC.

It will no doubt be said that I am foolishly romantic about the old gold standard and  that the new order of things at SSHRC is  far more cross-disciplinary and cutting edge. Maybe. But I fear the situation is very nearly the opposite: scholars have never been less free or more disciplined under the new conditions at SSHRC, which  don’t just reward opportunism but also create a new kind of scholarship  directed, rationalized, managed, and engineered to fill a research niche better filled by government employees. If so, SSHRC is  converting scholars into bureaucrats and scholarship into government reports – hardly a happy turn of events.

Fortunately I can report that there is a lot of good will, talent, and smarts at SSHRC (starting with Chad Gaffield, a historian)  and among influential university administrators across Canada. Consequently, all is not lost, at least not yet, and frustrated humanities researchers can hope for better from SSHRC in the future. To that end, it is urgent that faculty advocate with our SSHRC leaders so that our concerns are heard and debated – and thereby demonstrate concretely, albeit with Old School skills, who faculty  are, what we believe, and how we can do it.

Todd Dufresne is a professor of philosophy and director of the Advanced Institute for Globalization & Culture at Lakehead University. He gratefully acknowledges that he has received many grants of various kinds from SSHRC during his career.