December 5, 1997


Selling ideas in a market that likes widgets

Social science and humanities researchers challenged to explain relevance to the public that pays

Folio Staff

"But what can you do with it?"

It's a common question for researchers now, but apparently even Queen Victoria asked it of a scientist conducting early experiments with electricity. His answer: "You don't ask that question of a newborn baby."

When I use this word [useful] it's a six-letter word and yet people think it's a four-letter word. Yet, that's the name of the game now... People in philosophy up to economics have to explain what they are doing. - Marc Renaud, president of SSHRCC.

Theoretical research without immediate market potential is that baby, says Dr. Royston Greenwood, Faculty of Business and a specialist in organizational development. The story helps illustrate what is happening as researchers in the social sciences and humanities face dwindling government support and an increased need to "sell" the public on their research to solicit dollars and partners. Potential cures and patented inventions have a market, but how do you sell ideas?-ideas so diverse they practically cover the spectrum of human thought.

"Universities are complex sets of different interest groups," says Greenwood. "They're not highly unified organizations." Social sciences and humanities describes an incredible breadth of investigation, from linguistics, classics, political science, anthropology, psychology, native studies, law, business, education to economics, music, physical education at times and elements of agriculture, forestry management and human ecology.

In fact, according to Marc Renaud, president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC), social sciences and humanities accounts for 55 per cent of university professors and 58 per cent of university students. "And yet we have 12 per cent of the money available from the federal agencies."

"We finance five per cent of the graduate students; NSERC finances 20 per cent. We finance 15 per cent of our university professors in Canada, in our fields; they finance 60 per cent," he says. "If the federal government wants us to be an instrument, a tool of intervention, we have to achieve similar levels of penetration." SSHRCC needs its $90 million annual budget quadrupled, he says. "I think we have to fight for it."

Renaud, along with SSHRCC communications director Pamela Wiggin, spent two days on campus this week at the invitation of Dr. Patricia Clements, dean of arts. They were impressed by what they saw. "There's a lot of appetite for knowledge and creation and doing things differently." says Renaud. The challenge is communicating the value of that appetite for knowledge and creation.

Wiggin says, "People in the media are constantly quoting professors .but the connection between that knowledge and research isn't being made. . The idea that this person has an expert view on the Middle East or whatever .they don't realize that out of basic research comes this ability to interpret events."

Human history is shaped by ideas, says Clements, and what social scientists and humanities professors do is critically analyze those ideas and the forces that shape them. "Our slogan isn't 'research sells,' it's 'research makes sense.'" And making sense of the world requires a balance of inquiry across disciplines.

The potential at the U of A is tremendous, says Renaud. "How can we in SSHRCC market this so that it's visible?" And more important, how can learning institutions themselves turn their thinking around.

"A lot of people are saying people in the social sciences are whiners, wanting to be locked away with their own little intellectual pursuits .Let's show each of us in our own world why we are useful. When I use this word [useful] it's a six-letter word and yet people think it's a four-letter word. Yet, that's the name of the game now.People in philosophy up to economics have to explain what they are doing."

Greenwood, who is currently working on a SSHRCC funded study of the changing relationship between accounting, law and management consulting firms, agrees.

"The current demand for justification of research has a solid foundation in institutional theory," he says. "Organizations have to conform to societal expectations in order to attain legitimacy .. What's happening is the legitimacy of universities is being questioned .The university has a very serious responsibility to convince the world that studying English literature is as valuable or more valuable than studying management theory."

"For my money, the critical challenge for the university is to maintain the integrity of its courses of study," says Greenwood. "While we shouldn't deny the call for relevance, we cannot be purely market driven." There would be a market, he suggests, for a three-month MBA. "We have to make it clear to the external world what we mean by the integrity of a learning program."

"We cannot continue doing what we did in the past," says Renaud, "closing our eyes and throwing money to the best project as seen by peer review. . .We are obliged to talk more, not only to talk, but also to get the actors involved more in defining problems . . .but that doesn't mean to narrow it so much that you exclude half of academia."

What are those social scientists doing?

According to a tidy book, What you can do with an Arts Degree, the study of linguistics might prepare you for a career as a speech pathologist.

But a quick chat with Dr. Gary Libben, a linguistics professor and associate dean of arts (research), his field offers something the community wants. "The natural partners would clearly be companies interested in language and speech technology." This includes companies like Microsoft which hope to develop artificial intelligence. That requires an understanding of the human mind, and acquisition of language is key to what being human involves.

Libben was involved with early work developing translation programs for computers and the type of technology Stephen Hawkings uses to communicate. Former colleagues, he says, work for Boeing designing cockpit instrumentation that interfaces better with the way humans think and communicate.

In touring campus, SSHRCC president Marc Renaud says he saw information management technology in the Orlando project that would be of great interest to business. He heard insight into the Quebec separatist movement from an expert who'd studied parallels in the relationship between Budapest and Vienna. Renaud's background is as a sociologist in health-care studies and he was intrigued by the knowledge of the effects tuberculosis had on society in the last century. This knowledge is important to understanding the implications of diseases such as AIDS today, he says.

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