Are the liberal arts underfunded?

By Noah Miller

A poll on, the Globe and Mail’s site dedicated to undergraduate education in Canada, re-asks a question that pops up every now and again: “Are the social sciences underfunded in Canada?”

A 780 to 245 person majority is so far of the opinion that they are underfunded and that the social sciences are “as important as science and technology.”

A number of people at the University of Calgary agree. Social sciences dean Dr. Kevin McQuillan is among them.

“In the area of research, funding to the social sciences is far lower than to areas such as science, engineering and health,” said McQuillan. “Part of this can be explained by higher costs for things like equipment, but there is also a mistaken belief that the social sciences don’t produce work of value to ordinary people in society. But most of the really important problems we face in society — poverty, social conflict, crime — can only be resolved on the basis of a better understanding that will come from the social sciences.”

Students’ Union vice-president academic Meg Martin shares McQuillan’s concern that the social sciences are both underfunded and underappreciated.

“Even at our own institution, funding announcements are frequently highlighted in business and technology focused areas, this is much less so in social sciences and humanities areas,” said Martin.

Recent government funding increases to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council have also been targeted towards “business related degrees,” limiting the types of students grants are distributed to.

“It shows a fundamental lack of appreciation for the value of thought in the social sciences and humanities that doesn’t equate to a dollar sign,” said Martin. “Not only that, but it’s a totally inappropriate move by government in my mind, to interfere with funding in this way.”

Martin maintains that an education in the liberal arts is a fundamental part of making students into “well-rounded, critically-thinking individuals.”

U of C Faculty Association president Anne Stalker takes a more careful approach to stating that the social sciences are short funded.

“It is hard for me to state unequivocally that the arts and social sciences are under-funded in Canada, because I really do not have the financial evidence to support such a statement,” said Stalker. “However, there are several trends that we at the faculty association have noticed that would tend to support such a view.”

Stalker noted that both government and private sector spending tends to be targeted specifically at areas that produce “clear and immediate results” and that have “no political implications,” stunting social sciences funding.

“It is pretty clear that of the three national funding councils, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is the poorest and has the greatest proportion of its funding in targeted programs,” said Stalker. “This leads to under-funding of research in those areas, with the result that it is hard for them to demonstrate success at the same level as the sciences can.”

On a national-level, this debate promises only to heat up following this year’s Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in late May, which discussed “the politics of research.”

“We are facing huge changes in the world today and we need to remember that our understanding of humans and how we work and live together can help facilitate the right changes,” said Stalker. “Marketing, politics and the very understanding of which new ideas to develop depend on our understanding of human behaviour and human culture. We need that understanding today more than ever and we don’t know which study will be the one that opens dramatic new doors.”


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