“In times of crisis, the humanities and social sciences inform and guide our response — raising awareness of the issues, analyzing options and helping shape public policy,” according to a new report by Canada’s Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. The report’s authors write, “many of the most difficult problems we face as a society — including climate change, racial injustice and the spread of infectious diseases — are shaped by human behaviour and public policy. That’s why their solutions require more than technical knowledge alone.”
This report, “Think Big: How the social sciences and humanities are building a better Canada,” will be of interest to both students and researchers; students comprise more than one-third of the 735,000-plus postsecondary students in Canada. “Scholars [and students] in the humanities and social sciences study how people think and feel. They study how we relate and communicate, how we organize and work, how we learn and express ourselves. They study what humans have done in the past that shapes the present and informs the future. These studies can help people build the communities they desire and live the lives they choose.”
The federation is a nonprofit with members of over 160 Canadian universities, colleges, and scholarly associations representing 91,000 researchers and graduate students. The federation receives funding from the Government of Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and have revenue from their membership fees and endowment to provide resources and promote the importance of the social sciences and humanities to the public, legislators, and federal government.
Among a number of vignettes, the report highlighted the work of Frances Henry, professor emerita at York University, who has used Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout as an example of racial disparities in health care. Her research illustrates how social science research touches the daily lives of Canadians. Another example is a research partnership led by Alison Blay-Palmer, professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, and UNESCO Chair on Food, Biodiversity and Sustainability Studies. She is partnering with Indigenous and traditional communities as they adapt to climate change and supporting sustainable urban food system innovation.
In addition to exploring societal behaviors and climate change, the humanities and social sciences are integral in bringing awareness to issues of social and racial justice, such as for Indigenous and First Nation peoples. The federation highlights its commitment to addressing these issues “to ensure that all people can prosper and contribute to society, we must confront past and present injustices. Knowledge from the humanities and social sciences is crucial to understanding the historical, structural and social forces that contribute to inequality, and to developing the most effective strategies for promoting equity, diversity, inclusion, and decolonization.”
The federation report not only addresses why identifying issues concerning inclusion and equity is better for a more just Canada, but also imperative for developing agile skills for the workplace, whether someone is beginning their career or rising to more managerial positions. As automation is projected to impact 50 percent of the Canadian workforce, “the social sciences and humanities can equip students with the critical thinking, analytical, communication and interpersonal skills needed in a world of rapid technological change.” The report gives the example of how media executive Kirstine Stewart bridged the gap between the humanities and tech. She majored in English at the University of Toronto and is currently the chief revenue officer at digital rights technology company Pex and previously served as vice president of Twitter Media North America.
The report stresses the importance of not only learning culture awareness and insights into pressing issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, and climate change, but also easily adaptable analytical skills like leadership in diverse organizations, communication for a wide array of audiences and platforms, and problem-solving quickly in their careers. “From working to improve food security in the face of climate change, to providing ethics-based analysis on the risks of new and emerging technologies, researchers in these disciplines provide an integral contribution to the public, business and government decision-making that will help build a better Canada.”