On Campus

With the click of a button researchers can access extensive body of work

Canada Foundation of Innovation CEO says social science and humanities central to innovation

The humanities and social sciences are key to innovation in Canada, according to Dr. Eliot Phillipson, president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). This was one reason CFI made a $19.1 million investment into expanding access to digital humanities and social science content, announced last week.

The investment is part of joint funding of $47 million — from CFI, eight provinces and 67 universities — that will go to developing desktop access to national and international scholarly material. The works, never before digitally accessible to Canadians, include books, letter, music scores, historical documents, maps, artwork, and visual material. Before this initiative these works were only available on a limited basis in print, often in only one location.

The Digital Infrastructure for the Human and Social Sciences was announced by the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (NRKN), a consortium of universities focused on digital content in research. Dozens of academics gathered for the announcement, which took place as part of Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences 2008 at the University of British Columbia.

In an interview in Vancouver, Phillipson emphasized the role of the social sciences and humanities in innovation. “Someone makes a discovery that leads to a product, a widget. That in itself doesn’t mean that it is going to be commercially successful,” he said. “Tech transfer, that is scientific knowledge transferred into a product, is largely a social process.”

Phillipson — whose organization exists to provide funding for research infrastructure — offered a couple examples of the necessity of humanities and social sciences. “We knew for years that smoking causes lung cancer,” he said. “But the decline in smoking rates didn’t occur for many years after that because it involved, again, changing the economics, increasing taxes, changing people’s behavior. So much of smoking, particularly in teenagers, is nothing to do with the tobacco. It is the image. It’s cool.”

The initiative will bring together material from 30 countries, half of which is Canadian, in a searchable database, changing the way humanities and social science research is done in Canada. Currently researchers are not able to search for material without knowing specifically what they are looking for and reading the work often requires acquiring the physical document. The material will cover 35 subject areas and 1,000 titles are in French.

Dr. Mona Nemer, members of CRKN’s board of directors and VP research at the University of Ottawa, said, “We all recognize that you can’t do important research without being interdisciplinary.”

CRKN’s release elaborated on Nemer’s theme. “Increased access to social sciences and humanities knowledge is essential to enhancing the capacity of nations to tackle complex, global issues that are, by their very nature, interdisciplinary.

“By creating a national infrastructure to access digital knowledge in many areas of social and human activity, the investment will greatly improve the ability of Canadians to undertake interdisciplinary research and contribute to the search for solutions to these pressing issues.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.