Ratcliffe: Some researchers need not apply

John Capone, vice-president (research), recently identified neuroscience, imaging, materials, wind, sustainability, planetary science, philosophy of science and musculoskeletal health as “signature research areas.” These are important fields of scientific, but not humanist or social science research. Not surprisingly, many of these programs have commercial value.

New internal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grants – funded by only a portion of previous internal grants – must be matched 50/50 by the university and the applicant’s faculty. Given most cash-strapped faculty budgets, it is unlikely projects will be matched and, therefore, funded. Research must now fit into five predetermined and prescriptive “core priorities” further subdivided, according to the researchers’ age and experience, into Seed, Bridge and Accelerator grants.

‘Early-career researchers’ who, for more than three years, held short-term positions here or elsewhere since earning a PhD, may not be eligible for Seeds. Other young colleagues who dared apply for, or were co-applicants for, a Tri-Agency competition – even a successful one – also need not apply.

Bridges are for those who have held external funding and applied for one competition in the previous year. Restricting applications to the previous year is limiting, indeed punitive. If successful faculty failed to apply last year – perhaps while finishing the funded project – they need not apply.

Accelerators are for current external grant holders who need ‘help’ to ‘make the leap to higher grant values.’ Such outstanding scholars, who achieved their projects’ goals but now require internal support for new research, need not apply.

Seeds, Bridges and Accelerators will not be available to most SSHRC faculty who do not fit these tidy and limiting categories. In any event, funding decisions will be made by a board mostly composed of appointed administrators, not through peer review. Such administrative meddling is a dangerous deviation from the established practices of all Tri-Council agencies where real peer review, basic to the advancement of all sciences, is mandated.

The reason for these changes in Re-Profiling Internal Funding Programs purport to “directly address and target by re-purposing the existing suite of internal funding programs all for better flexibility and alignment with institutional strategic objectives.” Perhaps the real issue this “re-purposing” aims to resolve is the decrease in total research funding at Western that, between 2006-11, according to Research Western’s Research in Numbers, fell by nearly 25 million dollars. Specifically, contract research (licensing income, inventions disclosures and U.S. patents issued) decreased from $21,430,992 to $10,372,475.

Is it possible the commercialization model at Western, rather than modest internal SSHRC grants, is to blame for this decrease?

Indeed, Tri-Council research funding at Western has increased. According to 2006-11 data, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council grew by $557,291, Canadian Institutes of Health Research by more than $7 million and SSHRC funding expanded by a dramatic 25 per cent. More than half of all Western faculty fall under the SSHRC umbrella and, despite the 1:5 ratio of grants to applications, our success rate is high. While corporate commercialization is not paying off, the humanities and social sciences bring external funding and recognition to Western.

Is ‘re-profiling’ necessary?

A year ago, when he was appointed, Capone praised the “thoughtful understanding of complex issues … from research in social science and humanities that embrace critical thinking” in a June 7, 2012 Western News article. In the past, modest internal grants led to solid, well-recognized projects and peer-reviewed publications that were – to quote Capone – “globally competitive” and “relevant.” They allowed faculty to buy materials, pay for research travel and hire graduate students to participate in research that benefited their own work.

This new program also cancels research on teaching that brings research into the classroom “where it can make a difference” to all students. In a Jan. 31 Western News article, Capone said “a university’s reputation … mainly relates to research activity, output and intensity.” Such a statement – and these documents – lacks an understanding of the cultural and social impact of SSHRC research.

What makes a university great is teaching, researching and sharing knowledge – not corporate spin-offs.

Do “thoughtful understanding,” “complex issues” and “critical thinking” have a place at Western? How will SSHRC scholars at Western be affected by “flexibility and alignment with institutional strategic objectives” and “performance indicators” measured by “higher grant values?” How will our research be evaluated in an institutional schema of “productivity metrics?”

This new research vision reveals a narrow approach dependent on market value, measured in dollars rather than research’s global socio-cultural impact. Are these changes the first salvo in future faculty contract negotiations?


Marjorie Ratcliffe is a professor in Western’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.