Humanities and social sciences scholars in Canada at all levels of research benefit from the support of the predominant Canadian federal funding agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
In 2009, SSHRC announced a number of changes following the federal budget. In a letter sent out to SSHRC’s stakeholders, Thomas Kieran, Vice President and Chair of Council, and Chad Gaffield, President, detailed the ways that the budget influenced SSHRC. The budget included the results of a Strategic Review, which occurs every four years, that assessed SSHRC’s program spending (along with 15 other organizations who participated in the review process in 2009). As a result of this review process, SSHRC eliminated its Research Time Stipends (RTS), which were funds that faculty members could use for their research, suggesting that “universities have the responsibility to provide university grant award-holders with adequate time for research.” For social sciences and humanities scholars interested in the history of health, the other outcome of the Strategic Review process was significant. Kieran and Gaffield summarized the decision as follows:
SSHRC funding is reduced for health-related research that is eligible under the mandate of CIHR [The Canadian Institute of Health Research]. Out of approximately $20 million currently invested by SSHRC in health research, a reduction of $5.59 million will be phased in over three years: approximately $1.05 million in fiscal year 2009-10, $2.65 million in fiscal year 2010-11 and $1.89 million in fiscal year 2011-12. SSHRC will continue to fund research and training for which the intended outcomes add to our understanding and knowledge in the social sciences and humanities. A set of guiding principles has been developed to assist applicants in determining whether their applications are suitable for SSHRC consideration. These guidelines will be made publicly available as soon as possible. In the meantime, SSHRC has begun working with CIHR to ensure a coordinated approach to the implementation of this decision.
On 1 April 2009, following the letter to its stakeholders, SSHRC publicly announced that it would no longer provide funds for research that overlapped with the CIHR mandate, but that it would “continue to fund health-related research that has a social sciences-related focus.” It should be noted at this point that the current language regarding subject matter eligibility for SSHRC funding leaves the door open to historians of health, as “Proposals may be eligible if there is no intent to directly or indirectly impact health, or if health is a subsidiary element in a study intended to increase our understanding of individuals, groups and/or societies.”
In February 2011, a group of anthropologists led by Janice Graham, then president of the Canadian Anthropological Society, published a reaction to SSHRC’s 2009 announcement, “The end of medical anthropology in Canada? A manifesto,” in University Affairs. In this letter, the group called for “a constructive process with SSHRC and CIHR” and invited “all social science and humanities health researchers to engage in these critical discussions.”
SSHRC followed through with its plan to reduce its spending on health research, as data related to the results of its funding competitions (available on SSHRC’s website) at all levels demonstrates.
Figure 1: SSHRC Doctoral Awards
The 2008-09 funding year represented the height of success for SSHRC doctoral awards in the self-identified research category of ‘health,’ with 36 successful applicants (representing 5.3% of all SSHRC doctoral awards in the funding year).
The number of successful applicants who self-identified ‘health’ as their main research category dropped significantly following the 2009 decision. In 2010-11, for instance, only a single applicant used ‘health’ as a primary research category; this application was unsuccessful. For the funding years 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, SSHRC does not list “health” as a research category in their statistics. In 2013-2014, “health” reappears as a funding category within SSHRC’s information, with 3 successful applications (representing 0.6% of all awards).
A chart of CGS Doctoral Awards demonstrates a similar decline in awards given to researchers with a focus on health.
Figure 2: SSHRC CGS Doctoral Awards
A chart of post-doctoral funding demonstrates a similar trend away from funding health research by SSHRC, and that applicants beginning in the 2010-2011 funding year were less likely to apply with “health” as a research category.
Figure 3: SSHRC Post-Doctoral Awards
Figure 4: Standard / Insight Grants
SSHRC’s 2009 decision also influenced the number of awards received by career scholars with an interest in health, as the chart above indicates. (Note: the Standard Research Award program was replaced in 2011 with the Insight Grants. The table therefore charts the amount of money awarded to researchers by SSHRC under the two competitions).
At the height of funding, in 2009-10, SSHRC awarded $3,207,933 in Standard Research Grants. This money was divided among 33 projects with a total of 93 researchers. ‘Health’ disappeared as a category in the available statistics in 2010-11 (under the Standard Research Grants) and reappeared in 2013-14, which was the second year of the Insight Grants program. When the funding returns to statistical view in 2013-14, SSHRC awarded $276,620 to two projects with a total of two researchers.
The decision by SSHRC to refer scholars with interests in health to CIHR has had the intended impact of limiting both applications and awards from SSHRC at all levels of research. This directly influences scholars of the history of health, as well as social and cultural anthropologists with an interest in health, who had traditionally been able to obtain funding through SSHRC.
It is possible that successful applicants researching health are decentralizing health in their project proposals in order to be categorized in another research area. Although this may not be a satisfactory solution for the promotion of the study of health from a social sciences or humanities perspective or for the history of medicine in Canada, it may represent one strategy for doctoral and post-doctoral researchers to regain a traditional form of funding as ‘health’ is a largely unsuccessful category of research under the 2009 changes.
Another possibility, which will be examined in a future post is that scholars engaged in health research from a humanities or social science perspective are, indeed, turning to CIHR as a source of funding.
 Thomas Kierans and Chad Gaffield’s letter was published in Paul Wells, “Let’s play Cut the Granting Councils!,” Maclean’s, 23 February 2009, http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/lets-play-cut-the-granting-councils/.