The United States and Canada are both in the middle of important national conversations about their research systems, and as a Canadian scholar based at Harvard, I am struck by the contrast between the two. In the US, the current administration is reducing trust in facts, research and knowledge. The Canadian government, on the other hand, has recently completed a comprehensive examination of its research system and is poised to make great strides in research — if it acts to capture the opportunity.
As someone who is involved in the research communities in both countries, I want both to grow and to thrive. I was born and received my undergraduate training in Canada, and I did my graduate work in France followed by a postdoc at Stanford. Then I stayed in the US, as I became part of an academic dual-career couple.
The Trump administration’s recent budget proposal calls for severe cuts to leading science-focused research agencies and federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Cancer Institute and the National Science Foundation. It is calling for the closure of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, prompting the resignation of NEH Chairman William D. Adams. This administration has attempted — and may further attempt — to severely restrict travel of Muslims to the US, threatening the free flow of ideas and scholars to and within this country.
I am part of an international network of sociologists working on issues of race, social stigma and inclusion. With isolationist attitudes on the rise in the US, Europe and elsewhere, there is a pressing need for new insight into how we can build and maintain pluralistic societies. Canada has unique approaches and experiences in this area, and is poised to become a safe haven for more scholars, even as the US becomes less welcoming for foreign students and academics.
Canada’s current national conversation about its research system has been exemplary. Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan initiated a review of the country’s research system by an advisory panel of experts that consulted with researchers across the country. The panel’s April 2017 final report, Investing in Canada’s Future: Strengthening the Foundation of Canadian Research, was the first large-scale examination of Canada’s multibillion-dollar research system in more than 40 years, and by most accounts the review was thorough and inclusive.
The report articulates the importance of building a world-leading research system, provides a sobering examination of Canada’s relative strength compared with peer countries and makes practical recommendations to government about what needs to change. The recommendations emphasize the need for increased investments in independent research across all disciplines and improved coordination between Canada’s research agencies. They also stress the importance of renewed attention to social science and humanities research, which currently accounts for just 15 percent of federal research grants.
The panel points out that some of our most pressing social challenges, such as climate change and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, include complex human dimensions that require insight from the humanities and social sciences. As someone who conducts research into the challenges associated with building diverse, inclusive and successful societies, I strongly share these views.
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Canadian scholars have the capacity to take on these challenges. In late May and early June, over 10,000 scholars gathered in Toronto to share their research at the 86th annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. This meeting demonstrated the great potential for social science research to do good in the world, as well as the passion and commitment of the research community.
Researchers in the US have shown the value they bring to their communities through the inaugural March for Science in April 2017. In fact, the event drew global attention, attracting 1.1 million people to demonstrations in Washington, DC, and 600 other cities across the world to show support for research and evidence. These inspirational marches are motivated by real and ongoing threats to the US research system — with no end in sight.
Canada, by contrast, is engaging in a healthy national conversation about the future of research and can begin to stem the “brain drain”; it can attract more researchers by fostering a welcoming environment for scholars. This is a unique moment, when Canadian humanities and social science communities can show the way to their giant neighbour by demonstrating the extraordinary social importance of scholarship in these fields. It is an opportunity not to be missed.
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