On Campus

Shutout of 'soft' sciences provokes discontent

As 9,000 scholars descend on Concordia University for Congress, the role of the social sciences and humanities is top of mind

The Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, underway at Concordia University, has often served as an entry point to discuss the role of the “softer” studies. But the recently awarded Canadian Excellence Research Chairs (CERC), that went exclusively to researchers in the hard sciences, has given Congress goers a new sense of urgency.

All 19 of the Chairs awarded earlier this month were in the technical fields of environmental sciences and technologies, natural resources and energy, health and related life sciences and technologies, and information and communications technologies.

Click here to read Paul Well’s analysis

Noreen Golfman, president of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences (CFHSS) which organizes Congress, told the Globe and Mail that the shutout is “discouraging” and that “it is going to inform a lot of the conversations we have this week.”

The CFHSS didn’t wait until nearly 9,000 scholars descended on the Montreal campus to voice their concerns.  The organization submitted a letter highly critical of the CERC program to Industry Minister Tony Clement last week. “Conspicuously missing from the illustrious list of new Chairs is any obvious human and organizational dimension critical to the implementation of the research priorities in the [science and technology] strategy,” the letter reads.

The lack of excellence chairs for social science and humanities scholars has been conflated with another controversial aspect of the CERC program:  the fact that none of the research chairs were awarded to women. An ad-hoc panel, created at Clement’s behest, recently made several recommendations to Industry Canada on how to improve female representation in future CERC selection processes. One recommendation, that the CFHSS has endorsed, emphasizes “ensuring multidisciplinary approaches” and that “consideration should be given to having an ‘open’ category for projects outside of the identified priority areas for the competition.”

Placing greater emphasis on research areas outside the government’s present priorities would address female representation presumably because women are more likely to hold positions in the humanities and social sciences. “The priority and sub-priority areas used in the inaugural CERC Program competition may have had the effect of greatly diminishing the proportion of potential women candidates due to the gender mix of the disciplines involved,” the panel’s report reads.