No Business: In defense of social science research

Folks, I normally don’t offer opinion pieces on this blog, but recent changes in federal research funding must be discussed. The Canadian federal government, under the Conservatives, included this quote in the budget:

Scholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees.

I have more than a few things to say about this, and none of them good.

  • The phrase “business related” is entirely too vague to be useful. Moreover, it is impossible to determine ahead of the time. The social theory of  “social capital” was absolutely NOT “business related,” yet it has unquestionably been useful for business.  I can only assume that no one with training in social science and humanities authored such a imprecise phrase. Had they studied these disciplines, they would have learned analytic precision and writing skills.
  • My second major objection is that it doesn’t actually make good business senseBusiness people themselves are complaining that business faculties are not providing the kinds of thinkers they need. Increasingly, businesses are turning to people trained in sociology and anthropology who understand methods such as ethnography. They’re asking for MBAs to have a sense of design. It’s remarkably short-sighted to crowd out cultural researchers and artistic scholars by specifying “business related” as a requirement for scholarships.
  • Basic research is a public good, and as such, must be publicly funded. Countless insights would never have been discovered had university-based researchers not been provided this funding. Businesses rely on basic research just as much as society at large. It is a dangerous step to limit innovation by attempting to “pick winners” before research has even begun.

If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m a sociologist. You’ll also know that many of the insights I bring are adaptations of social research that are not in the least bit “business related.” Readers who value this kind of insight,  tell the feds what you think.

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2 responses to “No Business: In defense of social science research

  1. “Basic research is a public good, and as such, must be publicly funded.”

    You had me right until there. If research were a “public good” as you say, professors would not be allowed to copyright their work and prevent others from using it.

    Research should be funded by a university or a business, and that funding should come from private donations. If such research is of “social value,” nobody should be able to claim intellectual property rights to such research.

    • Very true, I agree. Professors’ work is technically “open source,” until university IP departments and patenting get involved. It is also “open source” until they publish it in scholarly journals. These are, for the most part, privately owned. However, Harvard and MIT have now mandated that all research done there must be published openly.

      IP rights need to change, absolutely. Many professors do not claim IP in the way that corporations do, even though their universities want them to act just like corporations.

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