UBC president makes compelling case for revamped social sciences council

Guest Contributor
February 18, 2003

Catalyst for change

Dr Martha Piper has outlined a radical transformation of how Canada views and funds the human sciences in Canada and called for a revamping of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). The president of the Univ of British Columbia and a key behind-the-scenes player in the ongoing re-orientation of Canada’s research capacity made the call for change when she delivered the 2002 Annual Killam Lecture in Vancouver last October.

Entitled Building a Civil Society: A New Role for the Human Sciences, she eloquently advocated a significant boost to SSHRC’s funding level — equal to 1% of all public expenditures on all “civil society” programs — and a name change to reflect the new focus and structure.

“I’m a firm believer that we need a restructuring of how we see the human sciences. We need a strong research base and we also need to think creatively about how we fund and structure research,” Piper told RE$EARCH MONEY. “The human sciences are an essential part of the Innovation Strategy and we’re not going to get there without them. We have the ingredients for sustainable innovation and technological development and what better country to do it than in Canada.”

Piper says the decision to advocate a better funded and radically different SSHRC came after months of research and the reading of various reports including an influential study by Richard Florida and Gary Gates. The says their report — Technology and Tolerance: The Importance of Diversity to High-Technology Growth — helped to crystalize her thinking about innovation and the essential role of the human sciences in developing a prosperous and civil society.

She recommends the name of the new entity also be changed to reflect its new focus and structure. Possible names include: Civil Society Research Council and Canadian Academies for Civil Society Research.

Our failures in the social realm stem from a failure of understanding based on informed inquiry. We cannot truly achieve the ideal of a civil society until we possess the kind of deep, extensive knowledge born of research.

— Piper Killam address

“I would consider the restructuring of SSHRC to reflect the nature and importance of research concentrating on the formation of a civil society. This restructuring would involve a commitment to network scholars across the country, in academies, colleges, institutes or alliances that focus on some of the most pressing ‘civil society’ issues,” Piper stated in the Killam address. “Such academies would be interdisciplinary in nature and involve graduate students and scholars in a variety of disciplines from a variety of universities.”

“A connection exists between a metropolitan area’s level of tolerance for a range of people. Its ethnic and social diversity, and its success in attracting talented people, including high-technology workers. People in technology businesses are drawn to places known for diversity of thought and open-mindedness.” —

Technology and Tolerance, Richard Florida and Gary Gates

Piper elaborated by saying that, like CIHR, human sciences research should be three-tiered: basic research; research defining Canadian and global identity; and ,research informing legislation, public policy and social programming. Emphasis on transferring research results into the public and private sectors would be achieved through the creation of advisory groups representing all facets of society.

The Killam address was heard by a large number of senior politicians, bureaucrats and university officials and Piper asserts that, based on subsequent conversations, they are taking its messages and recommendations “very seriously”. But she adds that she has no intention of leading the charge. “I’m not going to push it. I just put out some ideas,” she says. “World events are bringing people’s focus on these issues. I think this is an essential part of Canada’s Innovation Strategy because we’re not going to get there without it.”


Piper also called for the creation of a Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on a Civil Society similar to the recently revived Advisory Council on Science and Technology. The new Council would “promote continuing discussion at the national level of matters that have too often been relegated to local, occasional, ad hoc consideration”

“I’m a strong believer in high-level advisory groups,” says Piper, who is a member of ACST. “They may fade over time but they keep coming back. They’re needed to heighten awareness but we need more than just S&T. The humanities is just as important and just as complex.”

The Killam address also called for “significant changes in post-secondary education programming”. Piper argues that an integrated approach is required to instill in students a greater sense of social purpose as well as technological expertise.

(For the complete text of Piper's Killam address, go to www.oldadm.ubc.ca/president/ speeches/24oct02_killam.pdf).


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