More Research Money Needed For Social Science & Humanities.

CBC Commentary: Air date 15/3/2004

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Did you know that most researchers at universities are in the Humanities and Social Sciences? Dan O’Donnell is an English professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. On Commentary he says many of these researchers are being overlooked for grants.

Dan O’Donnell:

Recently, Prime Minister Paul Martin called for an increase in funding for scientific research. This is great news. After years of falling behind our competitors, Canadians are now putting real money into the natural and health sciences.

But natural and health scientists are not Canada’s only research community. More than half the faculty in our universities and colleges work in the social sciences and the humanities. These are our historians, our English professors, our linguists, our anthropologists. They are the people who study the world’s languages, cultures, and social organization.

They are also very poorly funded. Six out of ten researchers in Canadian universities work in the social sciences and the humanities. But these disciplines get less than 15 per cent of the $1.7 billion Ottawa spends each year on university-level research.

They also lack prestige. Of the more than one thousand Canada research chairs appointed by the federal government since 2000, less than one third have gone to scholars in the humanities and the social sciences.

Now it is easy to see why a pragmatic government might kid itself into dismissing this work. Research in the social sciences and humanities can seem far removed from our daily lives. Studies of Beowulf or of the suppression of homosexuality in children’s novels seem like frills when money is tight and the books need to be balanced.

But this is a mistake. The social sciences and humanities study the things that really matter to us. They are what we talk about. Recent debates about the historical definition of marriage, about the line between child pornography and legitimate artistic expression, or even about whether European hockey players are really less macho than their Canadian counterparts all involve questions studied by humanities and social science researchers.

More importantly, these researchers were studying these questions long before the rest of us discovered they were interesting or that they affected our daily lives. Ten years ago a professor of mine at Yale, the late John Boswell, was laughed at in newspapers across North America for writing a book about of the history of gay marriage. Nobody’s laughing any more.

More recently, a colleague of mine at the University of Lethbridge, Inge Genee, began a project looking at the influence government funding has on the survival of immigrant and aboriginal languages. And the source of her idea? previous research she did on the way scribes combine Latin with other European languages in medieval Irish manuscripts.

The point is that you can’t tell where the next big idea will come from. Research in the humanities and the social sciences forms what you might call a strategic knowledge reserve for our national debates.

We’re going to discuss these questions anyway. We may as well do it properly.

For Commentary, I’m Dan O’Donnell in Lethbridge.