The Research Council Merger: Cause for Concern

[First published in the ACCUTE Newsletter (December 1992): 2-6.]

by Michael Keefer

The Mulroney government's decision last year to merge the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada with the Canada Council and with the Department of External Affairs' special cultural programs was taken without any visible consultation of the scholarly and artistic communities. It is therefore scarcely surprising that these communities were not invited to take any part in the discussions which preceded the announcement, in the last week of November 1992, of the legislation designed to bring about this merger. Equally characteristic of this government's evident contempt both for scholars and also for writers and other artists, is the announcement that it intends to pass this legislation before the end of the current session of parliament—that is to say, before Christmas.

There were very good reasons for the separation in 1978 of humanities and social sciences funding from arts funding, and for the corresponding establishment of the SSHRC as distinct from the Canada Council. In reversing this separation, the Mulroney government has not offered any comparably persuasive arguments to show that the communities presently served by the two councils will benefit from the merger, or that there will be any significant saving in administrative costs. What then is the government's agenda? And what should our response be?

The legislation

Let's consider the proposed legislation. The council merger figures as Part III of an omnibus bill, C-93, which also deals with twenty-five other distinct matters. According to the preamble to Part III,

The purpose of this part is to wind up the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and transfer its functions and staff to the Canada Council and to transfer certain functions and staff of the Department of External Affairs concerned with the promotion of Canadian culture abroad to the Canada Council. The Canada Council would be renamed the Canada Council for the Arts and for Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities to reflect its expanded functions.

As Craig McNaughton, Executive Director of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities, has observed, the language of Bill C-93 gives the “strong impression ... that the Government is simply 'tacking on' the research function to the arts function.” The government, he suggests, “is not serious about maintaining the momentum of the research enterprise created through SSHRC over the past fourteen years. The original promise was that this would be a brand new agency with equal weight given to each former component. It is not.”

There is indeed cause for concern in the details of what the legislation says—and equally so in what it does not say.

Bill C-93 separates the function of management from that of governance. It provides for a President (the Council's chief executive officer) and a Vice-President, and at the same time establishes a governing Council of 21 members. The Chairperson and Vice-Chairperson of this Council, like the President and Vice-President, are to be appointed for a term of five years, and the other council members will be appointed for a term of three years. So far, so good—and the fact that Dr. Paule Leduc, the present President of SSHRC, will be the first President of the new Council is no doubt grounds for relief. ACCUTE has had differences with Paule Leduc on such matters as research time stipends (a subject on which I will something to say below), but she has stood up strongly for the interests of researchers in the humanities and social sciences.

We have every reason to be worried, however, by the fact that the government's legislation makes no provision for the oversight or approval of executive or Council appointments by parliament or by any parliamentary committee. What then prevents the government from stacking the Council (as the Reagan and Bush administrations did in a quite scandalous manner with the Advisory Council of the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities) with people whose opinions, or rather prejudices, on cultural matters happen to coincide with its own? When I put this question to a well-informed source in Ottawa, he replied, in so many words: “Nothing—except the vigilance of the academic and cultural communities.”

Equally worrisome is the fact that Bill C-93 does not require that people appointed to the governing Council should be Canadians who have made outstanding contributions or who have outstanding expertise in the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, or the area of international academic and cultural relations. The only requirement is that as a group they should be “broadly representative” of the Council's goals.

Nor does Bill C-93 assign fixed numbers of Council members to represent each of the new council's constituencies. Rather, it states in deliberately vague terms that in making such appointments the government “shall have regard to the importance of maintaining a broadly representative membership that reflects the functions of the Council.”

According to Bill C-93, the functions of the new Council are to

(a) foster, promote, sponsor and assist the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts;

(b) promote, sponsor and assist research and scholarship in the social sciences and humanities;

(c) promote a better knowledge and understanding of Canada and Canadian achievements abroad, and of other countries in Canada, through its activities in support of artists, scholars, researchers and others in Canada and abroad; and

(d) advise ministers of the Crown with respect to any matter falling within its functions and duties.

One notes, with interest and alarm, that the word “foster” appears in clause (a) but is nowhere evident in clause (b); this is presumably a signal that the Council will be expected to focus its resources more distinctly upon the arts than upon support of research and scholarship.

Another aspect of Bill C-93 is more directly alarming—and not just to scholars in the humanities and social sciences, but to members of the artistic community as well. The Bill declares that “In performing its international functions and duties, the Council shall take into consideration the foreign policy of the Government of Canada.” What, in this instance, is left of the traditional “arm's length” relationship between the government and federally-funded cultural institutions? Craig McNaughton of the CFH has commented astutely on this provision of Bill C-93:

Academic relations with other nationals and with educational institutions in foreign countries should not, save in extremis, be subject to Canadian foreign policy. It is one thing to try to maintain control over special programs put in place by External Affairs; it is quite another to suggest that the Council may have an obligation to constrain or disrupt research and academic relations which scholars feel are essential to the integrity of their intellectual inquiry. This provision needs limitations. This is a serious compromise of the “arm's length” relationship to Government and reflects one of the inherent difficulties with the original idea to combine functions of a government department with those of an autonomous research council.

Non-legislated features of the Council

According to other Ottawa sources, an informal agreement has been reached as to the probable constitution of the governing Council. It appears that there will be three members from the humanities and three from the social sciences; six from the arts community; three or four from the domain of international affairs; and the remaining five or six from “:the public.” For reasons that have to do both with patronage and with fair representation, scholars in the humanities and social sciences should find this arrangement deeply disturbing.

The legislation provides that Council members will be paid, in addition to travel and living expenses, an allowance for each day of Council meetings that they attend. While no-one would object to such a provision for unsalaried representatives of the arts community, the payment of allowances to all Council members makes it overwhelmingly likely that the five or six members of “the public” on the Council will be patronage appointments. Remember: there is no legislative requirement that these people should possess any special expertise or reputation in the humanities, the social sciences, or the arts, let alone the domain of international academic or cultural relations. Who is to say that they will not turn out to be a most egregious (if nonetheless “broadly representative”) collection of Tory party pot-scrapers, gate-greasers, bagmen, belly-scratchers and ideologues?

One might also ask why international programs should be entitled to sch a large representation on the new Council. The present Canada Council employs some 250 people (including 15 who are seconded to UNESCO), and has a budget of $105 million; SSHRC, with 110 employees, has a budget of $105 million; the cultural and academic section of External Affairs employs 16 people in Canada and a further 55 abroad, and has a budget of $25 million. On this basis it would seem difficult to argue that the work of the External Affairs cultural program is of comparable importance to that of SSHRC. Since, moreover, this external program is entirely secondary in nature (for only if we are training and producing scholars and artists can we think of sending them abroad), it is not evident why it should require a representation equal to or greater than that of all the humanities disciplines.

The manner in which the new Council will maintain an appropriate level of consultation and collaboration with the communities it is designed to serve is another area left undefined by the legislation. Ottawa sources have indicated that each of the three areas served by the amalgamated Council is to have a Program Advisory Committee whose membership, appointed by the Council, will be composed in equal numbers of Council members and of people from the appropriate community. Two questions come to mind. How, in the case of the external program, is the appropriate community to be defined? (Would it consist of scholars and artists who enjoy foreign travel?) And why, if the government is really committed to establishing a Council which will be responsive to the communities it serves, are these advisory structures not written into the legislation?

The prospect of a Council only 12 of whose 21 members are to be representatives—and not necessarily distinguished ones—of the productive areas which that Council serves in the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences is not an encouraging one. However, the most serious concerns raised by the proposed new Council arise in the area of finances.

Money matters

As mentioned above, the present Canada Council has a budget of about $100 million; SSHRC has a budget of $105 million (which the government has said will rise to $117 million over the next four years); and the cultural and academic section of External Affairs has a budget of $25 million. These funds—in particular those of the present Canada Council and of SSHRC—come from what are spoken of in the dialect of Ottawa bureaucrats as different budget “envelopes.” The Canada Council's money comes from the “cultural envelope,” within which the Council has had to compete with the National Film Board, the CBC, and the National Museums; the Council has tended to come off poorly in these competitions. SSHRC's money, in contrast, has come from the “science or research envelope”; and if SSHRC has also done poorly in competition with the medical and natural science research councils, it has at least been recognized as a research agency.

The government has promised that for the first several years of the new Canada Council's operation, the existing funding arrangements would remain intact. But what then? Several Ottawa sources have expressed the opinion that it is vitally important for the humanities and social sciences that their research funding within the new Canada Council continue to come from the science or research envelope. However, one does not have to dig very deeply in Ottawa circles to discover that despite the best efforts of senior officers of the SSHRC, there is very little understanding in bureaucratic or ministerial circles of the specific identity of the humanities research community in particular, and even less sympathy for what we do. The danger that hostile or indifferent ministers will toss the new Canada Council into the cultural funding envelope, and then let the Council's disparate components fight like cats in a bag for their share of a deliberately inadequate sum of money, is a very real one.

I mentioned above that I would have something to say here about the issue of research time stipends. This issue in fact provides a salient example of the level of incomprehension of and hostility to humanities research that seems to prevail in ministerial and bureaucratic circles in Ottawa.

For the past several years, SSHRC has restricted the amount of money that its Research Grants Adjudication Committees can spend on research time stipends to 10% of their total allocations. ACCUTE and the other members societies of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities have protested that this ceiling ignores the fact that one of the most pressing needs among researchers in the humanities is for time in which to carry out their research. But SSHRC has remained unmoved, arguing that the ceiling on research time stipends makes it possible to fund 100 more researchers in each annual competition than would otherwise be possible, and claiming as well that SSHRC's governing Council is opposed to the idea of devoting the Council's research funds to what could be understood as direct support of the universities' teaching function.

This claim appears perverse, especially in view of the fact that SSHRC encourages researchers to include provision for the training of young scholars in their research projects. However, as several distinct Ottawa sources have indicated to me, research time stipends have in fact been understood in precisely this manner within bureaucratic and ministerial circles—as amounting to a diversion of (federal) research funds into the support of (provincial) teaching functions. SSHRC's inflexibility on this issue is, one may suppose, a simple measure of the fact that the pressure exerted from below has been outweighed by the opposing pressures from above.

In one sense, this example may seem to provide us with a discouraging lesson. But in another sense, it may remind us that if we wish our voices to be heard, we may have to raise them a little louder than we have done in the past.

What is to be done?

I borrow this question, not from the title of Mavis Gallant's splendidly acerbic play, nor yet from Lenin's more famous (if now unread) tract of the same title—but rather from the 19th-century novel by Chernyshevsky whose title Lenin himself borrowed. I'm thinking in particular of that passage in which Chernyshevsky's hero, an uncomplicated person of a strongly utilitarian persuasion, responded to the experience of being elbowed by an officer on the Nevsky Prospect by leaping at the man, flinging him into the gutter, and warning him that should be attempt to get up, he would promptly be dragged to a still muddier place.

The moral of this little story? Well, I wouldn't want to recommend that mild-mannered scholars start knocking the hats off every member of the government whom they encounter. But while we laugh at the macho antics of Chernyshevsky's protagonist, let us also remember another reader of this passage—the Underground Man of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, who is much closer in spirit to the contemporary scholar in the humanities, and who, having been similarly elbowed out of the way by an officer, spends much of the text in a state of abject indecision as to whether or how he can bring himself to respond.

We have been rudely shouldered aside by a government that harbours an evident contempt both for humanities and social science research and for the arts. Let us, at the very least, ensure that our colleagues and our compatriots know what is at stake in the Mulroney government's hasty and ill-considered actions.