Graduate student imagine Canada’s research future

Special to Western News

Western PhD candidates, from left, Kim Martin, Library and Information Science; Beth Compton, Anthropology; and Adriana Soto, Hispanic Studies, engaged in an online breakout session with their counterparts at the University of Windsor during a Canadian Association of Graduate Studies-Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council roundtable discussion focused on Imagining Canada’s Future.

What could be more important in our academic community than engaging our brightest minds in the imagining and decision-making process of designing Canada’s research future?

Last Friday, about a dozen graduate students from Western’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) disciplines were hosted by the School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies, SSHRC and the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (CAGS) to re-imagine what the future of research could and should look like in Canada.

As part of its growth into the future, SSHRC invited all Canadian universities to host graduate student roundtables to address SSHRC’s current plan to ensure research in the social sciences, arts and humanities is relevant to, and builds research capacity in relation to, Canada’s future, long-term societal challenges and opportunities. Fifteen Canadian universities were chosen to participate and asked to respond to one of six key questions.

Western partnered with the University of Windsor in a joint roundtable and focussed on the question: How can emerging technologies be leveraged to benefit Canadians, with respect to sustainable, resilient communities; creativity, innovation and prosperity; values, cultures, inclusion and diversity; and governance and institutions?

Through the wonders of almost seamless technology, students from Windsor joined Western students around one large virtual table, and then worked collaboratively in four break-out rooms, to respond to the question.

Western Anthropology professor Andrew Nelson kicked the morning off and contextualized the meeting with a brief outline of SSHRC’s agenda for this initiative.

Then, Western Anthropology PhD student Michael Carter presented a live interactive e-presentation from Ryerson University, where he is the director of industry relations and academic coordinator of their Digital Media Zone, to clarify the term ‘emerging technologies.’ His provocative foreword to the morning provided a history of the development of now obvious technologies from the dawn of history to initial conceptions of computers and artificial intelligence, which actually began in the mid 1800s. His key points drew attention to the necessity of vision, tenacity, creativity, and disruption in moving life forward.

During the remainder of the four-hour session, the air was filled with animated and engaged discussion among the participants from varied SSHRC-based disciplines who commented, questioned, argued and challenged each other in joint break-out sessions. They probed the positives and negatives of technology, and wrangled with the issue no matter who, or where, we are, we are always reacting to some form of emergent technology cause society finds itself immersed without warning.

The students questioned: How can we ensure, as responsible citizens, we become proactive? Is it even possible? How can we ensure technology is available globally? How do we manage the disparity and the complexity? What happens when technology uproots and threatens important life traditions or health or global equity? Is technology weakening our artistic creativity because of ease of accessibility? Whose values? Whose culture? Whose definition of diversity? Who should make the rules around technology? How do we ensure government doesn’t take advantage of us technologically through imposing governance such as in Bill C-31?

“Meetings of the minds, such as these, are critical in recognizing and affording graduate students – who are our next generation of researchers – the opportunity to imagine and have a critical voice in creating the future, not just of Canada, but of our world,” said Linda Miller, SGPS vice-provost.

On June 1, PhD students Nandita Dutta (Hispanic Studies) and Kim Martin (Library and Information Science), both students in the Cultureplex Lab, will represent Western and Windsor at the SSHRC Congress, to engage in the next step of this action project. Joining them will be their counterparts from across Canada.

This was a highly successful meeting that showed there is likely nothing more relevant than having our brightest young minds and researchers of the present/future inform SSHRC in its processes of implementing its forward- thinking agendas for the future.

Carol Beynon is the associate vice-provost, School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies.