10 Things I learned at SSHRC

This entry was originally published in late December 2013 by SSHRC in English here and in French here

As I prepare to leave SSHRC for a new life in Vancouver, it is an opportune moment for me to look back and reflect on the progress achieved and lessons learned over the past seven years. During my tenure at SSHRC as vice‑president, research, and, prior to that, vice‑president, partnerships, it has been a privilege to have played a role in a publicly funded research institution, guided by a vision of supporting quality and facilitating connections across all sectors, leading to the greatest societal benefits. There is great complexity involved in structuring this support; SSHRC calls upon the extraordinary voluntary service of the research community and, often, its partners across the public, private and not‑for‑profit sectors, to select the very best ideas and talent for support through its new Talent, Insight and Connection programs.

Building on these reflections, I am pleased to share 10 key learnings from my time at SSHRC:

  1. Start with the vision. SSHRC takes considerable care and effort in setting out and articulating clearly stated goals to fulfill the council’s mission and mandate. Strong engagement with our staff, with the research community, and with our partners has been key to gaining a collective understanding of the purpose, objectives and mechanisms with which we can meet our goals. It is imperative to link the higher level objectives with our day‑to‑day operations.
  2. Words matter. Language is central to how an organization and community sees itself. The rebranding of our programs to Talent, Insight and Connection, for example, clearly reflects the desired outcome of projects we support: namely, to develop talented individuals, to support great ideas that provide important insights for societal benefit, and to foster connections among academics and beyond for mutual benefit.
  3. Make the case. When it comes to publicly‑funded research, we must consistently articulate the impact of the research and talent we support. SSHRC grant applicants are now required to discuss the intellectual and broader societal importance of their work. The results thus far are promising and facilitate the social sciences and humanities community towards seeing itself as essential to a successful society in the 21st century.
  4. Engage, communicate and listen. SSHRC has gone to great lengths to reach out and engage with the research community, invest in various interactive communications products and activities, and seek feedback on issues ranging from the structure and design of SSHRC programs to the Imagining Canada’s Future initiative. SSHRC is committed to continuous improvement in all that it does, based on the principle of strong community engagement.
  5. Know your history. When reading through historical documents, one notices enduring issues, including, for example, the challenge of interdisciplinary research. SSHRC has taken innovative approaches to funding opportunities such as the very successful Digging into Data challenge. The challenge of building interdisciplinarity into core programming is one that requires breaking down various institutional and disciplinary barriers both within research funding agencies and beyond. In all of these matters, knowing your history as an organization can help in building upon on previous experience to realize future success.
  6. Work proactively with postsecondary institutions. One of SSHRC’s many achievements has been the establishment of the SSHRC Leaders—senior university administrators who serve as channels of communication between their institutions andSSHRC, and who relay information on program and policy developments to their colleagues. This initiative has not only improved communications and engagement overall but has created a community of practice and helped the social sciences and humanities position itself as a strong voice on campus.
  7. Pay close attention to the details. The merit review process, for example, is multi‑faceted and requires attention to many details, such as designing effective program objectives and aligning these with evaluation criteria; training staff and reviewers; communicating with institutions and applicants; structuring committees; effectively using new technologies; and the importance of scoring, voting and other procedures. Realizing a strategic vision through effective program delivery is always a complex process and a work in progress, however, it is through this fundamental process that the vision of an organization such as SSHRC becomes a reality.
  8. Be patient. Change takes time. Inter‑subjectivity—as all good humanities scholars know—is the name of the game, and it can take many years, both internally and externally, to achieve some degree of alignment on the intent and the implementation of major initiatives. SSHRC‘s program architecture renewal has taken three years to implement for grants, and is now being adopted for scholarships and fellowships. All these changes require proper monitoring and appropriate adjustment moving forward.
  9. Remain impartial. One can become quite protective of one’s projects in the research granting business. After all, designing and delivering programs and corporate projects is hard work and one takes a certain pride in the result. Nevertheless, cultivating a certain detachment is essential to keeping an open mind on continuous improvement.
  10. It’s about teamwork. In recent years, SSHRC has simplified, consolidated and rendered its program structure more flexible and open. The tri‑agencies have released standardized and updated policies on conflict of interest, responsible conduct and research ethics. SSHRC has made the review process far more transparent with respect to clarifying its principles for merit review, nominating potential reviewers, and, most recently, posting its newly harmonized merit review manual on its website. These achievements could not have been possible without the active participation of many individuals and organizations. Translating intent into reality is an ongoing process which requires tremendous collaboration.

Through its many steps forward over the years, continuous improvement, and collaboration with sister agencies and partners across the public, private and not‑for‑profit sectors and internationally, SSHRC is poised to continue to contribute to a brighter future for Canada and the world. Thank you, SSHRC. It’s been a pleasure and opportunity of a lifetime.