Suárez: Time of retreat is over for humanities

Adela Talbot // Western News

Juan Luis Suárez, a professor in the departments of Modern Languages and Literature and Computer Sciences, will represent the non-STEM side of the research coin as the new Associate Vice-President (Research). His five-year term begins July 1.

Juan Luis Suárez knows when it comes to the arts, humanities and social sciences, universities are standing at an impasse. And it will take scholars from these fields to move towards progress, he said.

“This is an important moment for non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, not only here at Western, but worldwide. It will take humanists to bring solutions to huge problems – global climate change, Indigenous peoples, trade, political situations – all those problems have a very important human component we have to shed light on. That’s an important mission we have,” said Suárez, a professor in the departments of Modern Languages and Literature and Computer Sciences at Western.

Named Associate Vice-President (Research) last week, Suárez is stepping into a newly created position university officials envision providing unprecedented support for scholarship in the social sciences, arts and humanities. He will work in collaboration with Computer Science, Biology and Statistics & Actuarial Science professor Mark Daley, who holds the same title in the Office of the Vice-President (Research) and represents the STEM side of the research coin at Western. His five-year term begins July 1.

“This role puts us more in line with other major, research-intensive universities in having that layer of expertise and support. There has been some concern that some areas at Western were not as strongly represented,” said John Capone, Vice-President (Research).

“Scholarship and research in non-STEM disciplines is different than in the traditional STEM areas. Having someone who is immersed in that way of thinking is important from the university’s perspective, at the leadership level, so we can best foster scholarship and research in those areas,” he continued.

The role presents a lot of possibilities for non-STEM researchers at Western, noted Suárez, who holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies from McGill University, a PhD in Philosophy from the Universidad de Salamanca and has a number of other advanced degrees, including an executive MBA. While the portfolio is broad, he wants to see the position act as a bridge across disciplines on campus, supporting researchers on the ‘softer’ side of the academe, while simultaneously presenting them with opportunities to collaborate on larger projects.

“This is a good signal from the administration; they have listened to some of the problems in the past, especially given the (fiscal) situation of Arts & Humanities in the last few years. There are so many different types of research – people who need different kinds of support – and the challenge is to design a system so all these groups feel serviced and supported, according to their needs,” he said.

“We will try to do that as much as possible. We will help facilitate. We will promote research and provide whatever support they need.”

An internationally recognized scholar in his field, Suárez’s research interests are on 16th– and 17th-Century globalization, current sectors affected by digital innovation, and on cultural analytics and digital humanities. He is currently the director of the CulturePlex Laboratory, which explores how culture affects the spread of ideas and changes the ways people think and behave.

“Over the years, I’ve built trust and connections across campus and across disciplines and that collaboration is going to be very important for the humanities and social sciences in the future. I work with people in centres across the world. I can bring these (collaborations) to the table,” he said.

“It’s a great opportunity. I will be able to bring to it my experience and international relationships, my multidisciplinary background and my expertise in management and solving specific, challenging issues all universities and most big institutions are suffering from.”

The current climate for research in Canada is on an upswing, Suárez added, noting the recent publication of The Naylor Report, formally titled Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundations of Canadian Research 2017, is promising for STEM and non-STEM researchers alike. But when it comes to funding research in the arts, humanities and social sciences, the main challenge he sees ahead is mobilizing researchers to collaborate.

“We need to make people aware that the time of retreat is over. We have to take on responsibility and bring all the things we can to the main problems research is facing – problems that won’t be solved by one single discipline or one single group – and that forces us to look beyond our own boundaries,” he explained.

“The input from the humanities is going to be crucial for many things – robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic conditions, climate change, migration – every single problem we have needs that kind of input. Ideally, we should be thinking about how we can move the type of research that we do and get it closer to the type of problems society is asking us to solve. All parties have to make an effort to get to that point where (arts, humanities and social sciences) become more relevant and publicly perceived as such.”

Capone said fostering collaborative partnerships in different areas “is not easy to do sometimes.”

“Juan Luis has a strong background in his areas of expertise, but it extends into areas that add much to the depth of the work he is doing,” he added.

“The big questions we’re facing in the world are going to involve input from multiple areas and not only within universities, but from external communities, globally with governments, the private sector, and if we’re going to have an impact and make a difference, this is key.”