Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

Research and innovation in Canada: A brief history
January 15, 2007

As Canadians, we are now writing the fourth chapter in the story of a remarkably successful society. It’s about a country that grew from humble origins to global prominence through public investments that developed talent and advanced knowledge. How the current chapter will end remains unclear. Will Canada continue to succeed as a society in the coming decades?

Canadians wrote the first chapter in the 19th century. At that time, we established public schools, paid for by taxes, to support the development of a strong civil society in a rural economy.

In the second chapter, we expanded public universities. This enabled Canada’s successful transition to an urban, industrial society by the mid-20th century.

In the third chapter, Canadians began creating a significant research community which helped create the sophisticated “made-in-Canada” civil society that met the challenges of the late-20th-century, post-industrial world.

Each of these chapters involved failures and successes. Overall, though, consistently rising public investment in developing talent and advancing knowledge explain why the story of Canada remains one of the most remarkable of the past two centuries.

Canada’s fourth chapter has started well. During the past decade, significant federal investments in research have helped Canadians come to grips with the new questions of the early 21st century. How can Canada prosper in the global, knowledge-based economy? How can we meet the social, cultural, and political challenges of new technologies, new ethical debates, and new patterns of work and family life? What role should Canada play on the world stage? The complexity of these questions reflects how rapidly the world is changing, and how foolhardy it would be to rely on the answers of previous decades.

Given our story so far, it is no surprise that Canadians are renewing and creatively changing their commitment to the advancement of knowledge and the development of talent. This is no better illustrated than by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the federal agency created in 1977 to build understanding of people—individuals, communities, and societies in the past and present—in order to help create a better future.

SSHRC’s contribution to Canada’s fourth chapter is to maximize the impact of new and existing knowledge on Canadians’ quality of life. Guided by a new strategic plan, the Council is updating and expanding its programs to enhance connections among researchers and between the university and the larger society.

One program, already much imitated abroad, supports dozens of projects that connect researchers with local communities to tackle urgent problems affecting everyday life. Another enables major research teams to address complex questions that cut across disciplines. A third enables Canadian researchers to join global research projects that focus on key issues common to many societies. SSHRC’s newest program creates a critical mass of expertise by linking researchers in different institutions to create fertile knowledge networks. In each case, the result is a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

These programs show how SSHRC is deploying new strategies to advance knowledge and develop talent in an ever-changing world. SSHRC promotes “discipline-based interdisciplinarity”—meaning that true interdisciplinary research involves researchers deepening their special expertise, but always in the context of broader human knowledge.

This is why SSHRC supports research on complex topics that transcend the scope of any one scholar or discipline. The support of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to create research data bases for the social sciences and humanities superbly complements this more holistic approach. As well, the Canada Research Chairs Program attracts and retains some of the world’s most creative thinkers—researchers who address questions from diverse perspectives and through multiple approaches.

As we write this fourth chapter, there are also profound changes in how we develop talent; for example, rejection of the teaching–research dichotomy. We no longer see the competent graduate as someone who has imbibed a received body of knowledge, but rather as someone who has learned to construct knowledge. For this reason, SSHRC invests more than ever in students’ involvement in research, both as fellowship holders and as research assistants.   

The new strategies for advancing knowledge also reflect increased recognition of the human dimensions of topics once considered to be the province of technology and “hard” science—the world of machines and molecules. More and more, we emphasize the need to put people in the picture. If research is going to enhance our quality of life and prosperity in a competitive global environment, the human sciences must play a central role in Canada’s science and technology policies. That is why SSHRC also collaborates with NSERC, CIHR, and the CFI to support innovative research that is attuned to both the insights of scholars and the needs of Canadian society.

At some point, our children and grandchildren will look back on our efforts to renew and increase Canada’s long-standing investment in knowledge and talent as a public good. We must ensure they will recognize SSHRC for having contributed to the writing of a happy ending to the fourth chapter of Canada’s story as a successful society.

Better understanding of how we can best share this planet cannot guarantee a peaceful and prosperous future. But what else is more promising?

Funding in Action

Terror, fashion, aging and the benefits of knowledge.

September 10, 2001 was an exciting day for Canadian scholars. It was a Monday, and for most, it was the first day of classes in a new academic year, with all the preparation and anticipation that entails. Things were no different for those toiling in the more obscure fields of Islamic and Arab studies: most probably thought Monday would be the most challenging day of the week.

They thought differently on Tuesday.

And on Wednesday, waking to a changed world, with the citizens and leaders of Western nations facing a yawning deficit of knowledge in their “obscure” specialties, these scholars suddenly found themselves in urgent demand.

Like research in the physical sciences, the need for research in the social sciences and humanities is not always obvious. Its best argument is so simple as to be easily dismissed: “knowledge is good.” It’s a statement that’s hard to disagree with, but it may seem less than compelling when researchers are asking for cold, hard cash.

But then, on September 10, 2001, who would have thought we would need expert knowledge about the history of the califate, or about the tenets of Wahhabism?

The following are some examples of SSHRC-funded research.

Michael Levi’s Bomb Plots

Michael Levi concerns himself with the kind of plots that fill movie theatres—and give security specialists nightmares. Imagine, he proposes, that a terrorist group wants to build and explode a nuclear bomb. How do they go about it? How do we stop them?

The obvious solution is to lock the materials up: they can’t make a bomb if they don’t have the ingredients. But though he agrees that locking the barn door is a good policy, Levi—a trained physicist now working on his PhD in war studies at Kings College London—is focusing on the things we can do if the horse does get out. One example: he is using what we know about illicit drug deals to model a potential transaction between criminals with stolen material and terrorists who want to build a bomb.

“Like it or not,” says Levi, “you have to think about what’s going to happen when the alarm goes off.”

Michael Levi won SSHRC’s Taylor Fellowship as 2005’s most outstanding doctoral award recipient.

Joanna Berzowska’s Fashion Smarts

In Joanna Berzowska’s world, the phrase “change your clothes” takes on a whole new meaning. A professor in Concordia University’s Department of Design and Computational Arts, Berzowska is a pioneer in “wearable computing,” developing techniques for making clothes out of “smart fabrics” and “soft circuit boards.”

Her creations are equal parts fashion, art, and cutting-edge technology. “Kinetic dresses” with hemlines that raise and lower on their own. “Memory-rich clothing” that shows where and when it was last touched. An “intimate memory” shirt with a flower-patterned series of LED lights activated by a whisper in the wearer’s ear.

It’s cutting edge work in a literal sense. The materials themselves are far from traditional—one thread she uses, for instance, was developed to protect spacecraft from electro-magnetic radiation—but the things she does with them are as old as civilization: spinning yarn, weaving cloth, printing designs on it, cutting, and sewing.

Not to mention laundering. Because at the end of the day “smart” clothes go into the washer just like the dumb ones.

Joanna Berzowska’s research was supported by SSHRC’s Research/Creation Grants in Fine Arts program.

Janet Fast’s Gray Power Balance Sheet

Seniors currently make up 12 percent of Canada’s population; thanks to medical and technological advances, this percentage will double in 40 years. “With skyrocketing hospital costs, people are concerned about the costs of caring for seniors. But since relatives and friends are taking on more responsibility for care, we have to look at the costs placed on them,” says University of Alberta human ecology professor Janet Fast.

Many caregivers lose wages or have to give up their jobs to meet the needs of their loved ones. And the emotional and physical burdens they bear mean many end up seeking care themselves. But besides revealing the “hidden” costs associated with aging, Fast’s research also brings to light the “invisible” contributions seniors make to their families and communities. “Seniors are often viewed only as using resources, not producing them. But seniors can be great resources themselves, able and willing to provide practical knowledge and spiritual guidance.”

Fast’s team of researchers from Canada, the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and Australia has a great opportunity to help build a better support system for seniors and their caregivers.

“Population aging in Canada hasn’t peaked yet, so we still have time to learn from what has worked in countries where it has.”

Janet Fast’s research is funded under SSHRC’s Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program.

Learn more about SSHRC's success stories.