Humanities for Humanity’s Sake 4:
the Future of the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council of Canada

by D.M.R. Bentley

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada owes its existence to two acts whose importance for the cultural and intellectual vitality of the nation can scarcely be underestimated.  The first of these was the creation in 1957 of the Canada Council, the agency that still oversees and administers federal funding for the Arts.  The second was the transference in 1977 of what to that time had been a responsibility of the Canada Council to a new agency, the SSHRC, whose mandate was and is to "promote and assist research and scholarship in the social sciences and the humanities."1 During the twenty-five years since its inception, the SSHRC has been so successful in fulfilling its mandate that Canada has become internationally renowned for the quality and extent of Canadian research and scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, areas that include such fields as Business, Education, Geography, Information Sciences and even aspects of Nursing, as well as the disciplines that are more commonly identified as belonging to the Humanities (or Arts) and the Social Sciences.  In concert with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the SSHRC has helped to make Canada known around the world as a nation that values and supports research and scholarship in all their forms2 - as a shining and enviable example of the many ways in which learning can reflect and enrich a diverse people and make it more knowledgeable, better known to itself, and more fully understood by others.

     The SSHRC is now at a point where it must renew and redouble its commitment and contribution to the support and promotion of Canadian research and scholarship and to Canada's well-deserved reputation as a nation whose cultural richness and diversity are reflected as much in the achievements of its scholars and researchers as in the works of its writers and artists.  In the last two decades, advances in technology and the availability of knowledge have created new and stimulating opportunities for scholars and researchers in the social sciences and humanities, but they have also put new and restrictive strains on the SSHRC's programmes and infrastructure.  In the coming decade, unprecedented numbers of faculty retirements will intensify pressures that already exist on Canadian universities and colleges to train, recruit, and retain the new generations of scholars and researchers that will be essential if Canadian students are to be more than the recipients of knowledge and ideas generated elsewhere.3 Yet - and despite the fact that there are more researchers, scholars, and students in the social sciences and the humanities than in all the disciplines covered by the NSERC and the CIHR combined - the funding available to the SSHRC for research, research dissemination, and student scholarships has in recent years  fallen so far below the level  required to meet legitimate needs and demands that the SSHRC  has become severely and damagingly limited in its capacity to fulfil the mandate for which it was created.

     Confronted with a budgetary  situation that has approached disabling proportions, the SSHRC is undertaking a comprehensive and far reaching process of reflection and renewal that will yield a reaffirmation of its foundational principles and a re-articulation of its broad purposes.  Perhaps one route towards these goals lies through conceiving of Canada as a "Confederation of learning"  - as a community consisting of culturally and geographically diverse but interdependent communities of learning whose researchers, scholars, teachers, and students in all fields of the humanities, engineering, natural, social, and medical sciences receive the support that they need to fulfil their potential and, in doing so, benefit the surrounding and larger communities.4 For if Canada is to be a producer as well as a receiver, a generator as well as a consumer of knowledge and ideas, it must encourage and sustain environments that enable and encourage people to think clearly, to formulate fresh ideas, to exercise sound judgement and, whenever possible, to apply their knowledge and findings to the world in which they live.  It must foster and train the "educated imaginations" of which the Canadian scholar Northrop Frye wrote so eloquently5 both because it is intrinsically valuable to do so and because it is  the possessors of such imagination who have the capability, not only to think and to imagine, but also to analyze, to compare, to advise, to create, and to innovate.  It must foster, support, and reward both individual, curiosity-driven research and collective, cooperative projects, for, like thinking and imagining, knowledge and ideas reside within individuals and benefit from collective interaction: they grow and improve through criticism, testing, amendment, refinement, revision, expansion, supplementation - which is to say, through the collaboration that is inherent in the very nature of scholarly disciplines.6  By contributing to the creation and dissemination of knowledge and ideas through the support of collaborative as well as individual research and scholarship, the SSHRC will help to ensure that Canada and Canadians gain the benefits and reap  the rewards that come to all societies in which intelligence and creativity are valued and encouraged.

     Through the research and scholarship that it is mandated to "promote and assist" and with the level of financial support that it so urgently needs, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada7 will play an important role in enhancing learning at all levels and in all regions of Canada, in strengthening the Canadian community and the communities of which it consists, and in developing and sustaining the intellectual and imaginative capabilities upon which all creativity, innovation, enterprise, and productivity depend.  It will be a cornerstone of the knowledge and ideas economy of a smart society.




  1. "At best," continues A. Bartlett Giamatti, "the popular image of the college teacher ... is that of a rumpled child, fit to tend his grazing herd of adolescents across academic groves but totally lost before machines, money, and worldly temptation.... At bottom these images and their variants show us figures who ... go to class but not to office. They meet neither trains, payrolls, nor the public; what they sell cannot be seen and probably, therefore, does not exist. If it does, it is suspect" (198). [back]
  2. In "Myopia and Mythology: Some Personal Observations on Canadian Approaches to Science and Technology," an address to the British Columbia Science and Technology Fund Annual Reviews on January 16, 1992, David F. Strong treats the separation of teaching and research as one of the pernicious myths embedded in recent thinking about Canadian universities: "What can one say about the idea, most recently perpetuated in Dr. Stuart Smith's Report, that there is a dichotomy between research and teaching which leads to the latter being undervalued...[or the statement in a recent federal document that `the erroneous emphasis that exists today on professors to do research and publish material could also be diminished so that this valuable energy can be redirected to educating the students'? Such ideas ignore two basic truths. Firstly, especially given the rate with which knowledge is expanding today, a professor who is not active and creative in research and other scholarly activity will very quickly become out-dated, `teaching' yesterday's knowledge. If all professors stopped doing research, the university would very quickly be out-dated and out of touch. If all our universities are out of touch, then the whole country is, and we are de facto what we have been described as: `a third-world country living beyond our means.' Secondly, graduate student education cannot come from just `teaching'....It must be done in the best apprenticeship traditions when the student learns by doing, at the side of a top-notch scholar. Otherwise, students will have to learn second- or third-hand from books, which are often out of date when they are published" (8-9). [back]
  3. The York University Brief to the Ontario Council on University Affairs in Response to the Council's Discussion Paper Sustaining Quality in Changing Times: Funding Ontario Universities contains strong arguments for the inseparability of "teaching and research" and urges "Council to reflect seriously that a University without a strong research profile is unworthy of the name" (2). "Even if there were no empirical confirmation of the positive link between research and teaching," continues the Brief, "there are purely philosophical reasons why there should be such a link....Universities exist to train the habits of creative intellectual work, and creative intellectual work requires exposure to the process of research: the asking and testing of original and probing questions relevant to some significant argument, the acquisition of evidence, and the application of judgement appropriate to the evidence and argument. It is these skills, rooted in exposure to the conduit of research programmes, that underly the universities' contribution to economic and social development through the training of creative scientists, professionals and intellectuals. Take away the linkage between research and teaching and you diminish the quality of learning that is central to a university education as compared to other types of secondary and post-secondary learning....Nothing would be more calculated to ensure the universities are unable to deliver graduates with the appropriate research skills than a funding formula that treats teaching and research as two solitudes" (4). [back]
  4. "However, the relative significance of (a) and (b) may be determined by the Faculty Committee on Promotion and Tenure as long as neither (a) nor (b) is excluded. An outstanding individual record in either (a) or (b) may be sufficient reason for promotion and/or the conferring of tenure" (University of Western Ontario 6). [back]
  5. See The Educated Imagination, passim. [back]
  6. Less obviously perhaps than collaborative projects, the presentation of papers at conferences and the peer review of manuscripts are also aspects of disciplinary collaboration. [back]
  7. The proposal to rename the Council using the inclusive term “Human Sciences” should be treated with extreme caution because it would mean the disappearance of the rich and resonant word “Humanities.” Needless to say, a bilingual title for the Council/Conseil is essential, but perhaps, in this instance, symmetry should not trump connotation. “Le Conseil des Sciences Humaines du Canada/The Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada”? [back]


Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Toronto: CBC Publications, 1963.

Palmer, John P. “Bread and Circuses: the Local Benefits of Sports and Cultural Businesses.” C.D. Howe Institute Commentary 161 (Mar 2002): 1-18.

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Act.

Strong, David F. “Myopia and Mythology: Some Personal Observations on Canadian Approaches to Science and Technology.” Unpub. paper.

Throsby, David. Economics and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.