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IN MY OPINION

Whither research “priority areas”?

SSHRC explains why it is trying to identify nascent areas for enquiry and research.

By GISÈLE YASMEEN | NOV 14 2012

The recent Council of Canadian Academies report on the state of science and technology provides an opportunity to reflect on the topic of “research priority areas” and to explore how they are understood and integrated into the research enterprise. Research funders, scholars and students, postsecondary institutions and policy makers all grapple with the balance of current topical issues and those not yet in the spotlight. Sometimes, this challenge is associated with dichotomies such as “bottom-up” versus “top-down” research, or “curiosity-driven” versus “targeted.” But what do we mean by such terms, and do they reflect real differences? Are these reified concepts that warrant further exploration and debate?

In recent years, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has moved beyond such dichotomies in the belief that they distort as much as describe the increasingly dynamic and connected world of research in the 21st century.

Today, we see that many of the critical priorities in society, including the world of research, rely on all fields, including the social sciences and humanities. At the same time, other issues are only now appearing on the horizon, or seem possibilities in a yet-to-be determined distant future. As a result, research with short-term, tangible and intended outcomes as well as research with longer term, intangible and unknown outcomes are both very important.

Adopting a streamlined approach

As a research funding agency, SSHRC continues to support excellence in research and training that develops the talent, provides the insight, and cultivates the connections needed in society — today and by future generations. A feature of SSHRC’s program architecture renewal has been the ongoing support for priority areas throughout our grant competitions. The council has moved away from stand-alone competitions for priority areas with their own program objectives, assessment criteria and funding envelopes. This change was based on the understanding that these areas, while sometimes requiring an incubation period with dedicated support, eventually made their way across funding opportunities, thereby no longer requiring separate programs. With the same researchers often applying to both “standard” and “strategic” programs, we began to question whether researchers really thought of their research in this way. Our new blended, system has also enabled a more streamlined way of giving extra support to research when SSHRC’s envelope is expanded in a federal budget, particularly when those increases are focused on specific areas, such as the Digital Economy in Budget 2011.

The question of outcomes

The relationship between research in general and work in priority areas in particular with respect to intended or potential outcomes is an interesting one. Indeed, some of the greatest research breakthroughs have happened in situations where the intended or potential outcomes were unknown, either because they were far in the future – such as Einstein’s work in theoretical physics – or because they were discovered by accident, as with the case of penicillin. Without their licence to experiment freely, the work of Banting and Best in the development of life-saving insulin would never have seen the light of day. In the the social sciences and humanities, SSHRC President Chad Gaffield often refers to “September 10th, 2001” where investments in Middle-Eastern history, civilization and culture might have been seen as “basic or curiosity-driven research” — until the next day. To be sure, a healthy made-in-Canada research community requires, broad-based investments in disciplinary, multi -disciplinary (including trans- and inter-disciplinary) and multi-sector research with both immediate and long-term outcomes –many of which may be unknown today.

But, as history has revealed on many other occasions, research focused on obtaining immediate outcomes can also produce significant breakthroughs. Watts’ early work on the steam engine, revolutionizing transportation worldwide, originated in contract work he had undertaken with Scottish whisky-makers to mitigate the effects of steam produced by the distilling process. SSHRC’s early, focused investments in aging and digital humanities led to the creation of a world-class research capacity ready to take on emerging demographic and high-tech challenges.

Research funding agencies in Canada play a special role in this process. They uphold the principles associated with supporting a strong, diverse research base. At the same time, they have managed research that is more directed, whether in response to Parliament, to which they’re accountable, or based on what might best contribute to the public good at specific points in time.

Possible Future Directions

We may also consider another approach to priority areas: determining what the knowledge needs are today compared with what may be needed five, 10, or 20 years from now. SSHRC is undertaking a collaborative process to renew its current suite of priority areas by asking “Where could Canada be in an evolving global context in the next five, 10 and 20 years, and how can the Canadian social sciences and humanities research community contribute its knowledge, talent and expertise to both understand and shape that future?”

The “Imagining Canada’s Future” project is not an exercise in predicting the future, but rather, an opportunity to collectively map out issues that might affect societal developments in the future . Simultaneously, the project’s participants are asking what that might mean for research in the short term, including the research training of graduate students, whose “talent development” is always a long-term proposition. Similar future-oriented research exercises are taking place around the world, for example, in the work of the UK Foresight Office. A recent Canadian example is the University of Toronto report Life in 2027: Research Ideas about tomorrow from our next generation. The results of SSHRC’s Imagining Canada’s Future exercise will be incorporated in the Talent, Insight and Connection funding programs, as well as related corporate activities, as of next summer. The goal of this project is to identify areas where the social sciences and humanities can make a contribution, either by mobilizing existing knowledge or by (co-)creating new insights that will help Canadian society face challenges that are still beyond the horizon.

As Thomas Kuhn observed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, although the research agenda is often forward-looking and seeks to ask and answer new questions constantly, paradigm shifts can be few and far between. This can result in a group-think phenomenon, with certain trends becoming popular for a time in the research world, sometimes at the expense of other areas that may require attention. Consider the popularity of working class history that followed the publication by E.P. Thompson of The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, or the “subaltern” studies that followed the landmark essay by Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak in the 1980s, or postmodern analyses in the 1990s in light of a number of key texts. While all disciplines and areas of study are extremely important and funding-agency investments should be kept very broad, funders should also proactively nurture areas still in their infancy but of potential importance in the future. Research funders have the opportunity to see the scope of applications submitted on an annual basis. They can work with the research community and collaborators across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors in Canada and abroad, by using creative, engaging methodologies, to identify and develop specific areas that are not receiving sufficient attention (see, for example, on this site “Whose priorities are we working for?”). Through the Imagining Canada’s Future exercise, SSHRC hopes to add value to and create the reservoir of knowledge needed for the future, whatever it may hold.

Dr. Yasmeen is vice-president, research, at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

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