Council discusses report on what it heard from stakeholders
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council reached a milestone in the self-transformation project that it launched in January 2004. More than a year, thousands of pages and countless hours of discussion later, the council has produced a slim report on what it heard from the hundreds of stakeholders who took part in the consultation stage of the process.
While the report is a look backwards, it nonetheless provides hints of what could be included in the new strategic direction that SSHRC plans to unveil later this spring.
"It is our interpretation of what everyone said to us," stresses Christian Sylvain, SSHRC's director of corporate policy and planning.
At press time, SSHRC was planning to discuss the report at a meeting with about 80 university transformation representatives on Feb. 16, and release the report to the public later that month. An advance copy was provided to University Affairs.
Many faculty members will be relieved to see that the report strongly endorses council's traditional role as a supporter of investigator-driven research, and says this role needs to be strengthened. It also identifies research training for graduate students and training in new skills for established researchers as important functions that SSHRC must support.
Beyond that, the report notes a "genuine consensus" among researchers and research users for two expanded roles for the council: as a convener, to bring together researchers with each other, with students and with other stakeholders; and as a disseminator, taking a lead role in orchestrating a greater impact for research findings.
The report is divided into three sections. The first covers dialogue with the university community, the second, dialogue with organizations and individuals outside academe, and the third briefly mentions the commissioned studies.
From its discussions with policy- makers, government departments, non-government organizations, museums, think tanks and many other voices outside academe, SSHRC learned that agencies such as these have "dramatically increased the breadth and impact of social science and humanities research in Canada," according to the report.
Mr. Sylvain adds, "We used to call it the 'user world', and now we see it's not just a user world anymore. It's a world where knowledge gets generated, where knowledge gets put into practice - and not just in a linear fashion. We see now we don't have a monopoly on knowledge production."
This realization led SSHRC to think differently about the relationship between scholars and the broader community. "We discovered the functional equivalent to SSHRC of the university hospital [as it relates] to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research."
Of course, says Mr. Sylvain, outside stakeholders "are much more diffuse, much broader" and don't have the formal structure of a hospital. But nevertheless, the outside community - just like the hospital for medical researchers - is a place where humanities and social science researchers can interact with others and "can expand their research domains."
SSHRC also learned from outside groups that the best working relationships between researchers and government are longstanding ones that aren't contract-driven. For example, the Department of National Defence has supported a network of research centres with academics where strategic issues get discussed regularly.
"It's a long-term relationship that you have to build on trust and be respectful of each others' environments," says Mr. Sylvain. The council could help convene players from universities and beyond, he adds. "SSHRC sees itself in the business of doing this now."
The other area where SSHRC sees an important new role is in helping researchers mobilize their knowledge, using various incentives. SSHRC would like to become a clearing house for research and create a large database of Canadian researchers' findings, says Mr. Sylvain. It also wants to create something akin to technology transfer offices for humanities and social science research on campuses.
Missing from the report is any mention of theme-based academies similar to CIHR's, which were a starting point for the transformation exercise when it was first contemplated two and a half years ago.
Mr. Sylvain says that if the council gets the go-ahead from its board at the end of March, it expects to release a strategic plan to the public by the end of May and then start to work with government on a renewal plan "with the hopes of seeing a substantial budget increase for 2006-07." The concern now is to keep up the momentum for the next 12 months.