Research

WHERE’S THE MONEY?

A research mandarin steps down—because the feds don’t seem to care

PAUL WELLS July 4 2005
Research

WHERE’S THE MONEY?

A research mandarin steps down—because the feds don’t seem to care

PAUL WELLS July 4 2005

WHERE’S THE MONEY?

Research

A research mandarin steps down—because the feds don’t seem to care

PAUL WELLS

ON MAY 4, a note appeared on the website of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada announcing that Marc Renaud, the agency’s president, would be leaving the post after eight years. The note from Renaud mentioned that SSHRC— the federal agency that funds research into law, education, history, languages and other humanistic disciplines—was near the end of a major structural transformation. “The Minister of Industry has assured me that the important work of transforming SSHRC should continue,” Renaud wrote, “and I am confident that this will be the case.”

To close observers of university research in Canada, it seemed a frosty formulation. Renaud hadn’t even mentioned the minister in question, David Emerson, by name. One such observer suggested to Maclean’s that Renaud wasn’t leaving as an entirely happy camper. In an exclusive interview, Renaud said that’s true.

After presiding for nearly a decade over extraordinary growth in the budgets and ambitions of the agency that funds more of Canada’s academic research projects than any other, Renaud said he would have liked to have served two more years, and admitted: “I’m worried, to be frank.” For two budgets in a row, growth in federal investment in research and innovation has stalled. “It’s as if universities have had enough. I kept being told by people all over Ottawa, ‘Marc, don’t expect the growth that you’ve seen for the last eight years for the next few years.’ ”

A health sociologist from the Université de Montréal, Renaud has spent the last year and a half in consultations with university administrators and faculty with an eye toward overhauling SSHRC’s mandate. He wants Canada’s social-science and humanities researchers to be better connected—with one another, with the outside world, with mainstream media outlets and with governments. He wants to keep pace with an explosion in research in fields where research involves tools far more exacting than the tradition-

al humanities diet of late nights over dusty books.

“Don’t forget, we cover the landscape,” he says. “We always thought social science was soft stuff and people just needed their pens. And it turns out, it’s not true.” Now, longitudinal surveys—immense databases that track information about large samples of people over long periods of time—“allow us to compare what aging means in Greece and Italy and Canada, given different policies, the climate, the family structure,” Renaud says. “Five years ago there were zero students doing their thesis on this. Now there’s 400 in Canada.”

The upshot? Renaud wants SSHRC’s $240million budget for research and graduate-stu-

dent training to double over five years. It sounds extravagant until you realize that the budget is barely a quarter of those for either of the two granting councils for science. Renaud, whose discourse betrays more than a hint of Quebec nationalism, confesses admiration for Jean Chrétien’s extraordinary investment in the knowledge economy. “He told me his father was a truck driver, and the children all went to school,” Renaud recalls. “You know, school was the way to go somewhere. And the legacy of that government for universities is formidable. And what is sad is that this current government seems to have forgotten about this.”

Renaud wanted two more years to complete SSHRC’s transformation, but Emerson declined the request. “Maybe it’s a blessing,” Renaud says. íí1]