Consultation on Themes for the Strategic Grants Program
of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

A Report Prepared for SSHRC by Nicole Bégin-Heick and Mireille Brochu


In the winter of 2001, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) commissioned an environmental scan * to help Council and its Strategic Programs and Joint Initiatives Committee review the Strategic Grants program's research themes. The scan was also used as a background document for a public consultation with stakeholders.

The objectives of the study were to:

  1. review and report on current literature and documentation in areas of strategic importance (in Canada and elsewhere);
  2. provide a detailed bibliography;
  3. synthesize the findings in a report.

In a second step, SSHRC used the environmental scan to consult with its stakeholders ** in order to get their views on the most important themes. SSHRC asked stakeholders the following questions:

  • In your view, what themes for strategic research programs should SSHRC develop and support, now and in the future?

  • Why are the theme areas that you have proposed important for Canadian society? Describe their significance, explain the need for research in these areas and discuss the potential impact of the research.

  • To your knowledge, does Canada presently have adequate research capacity to undertake meaningful and rigorous research in the area(s) you have indicated? If not, do you think it is possible to expand this capacity?

  • Who are the potential partners for undertaking research in the areas you have proposed? Who are the potential users of the research results?

The intent of the consultation was to identify themes that have a demonstrable, significant and continuing impact on current societal, cultural and intellectual issues and that would not only fill knowledge gaps, but would also be useful beyond the academic community. SSHRC also wanted to define these themes so that they would encourage contributions from different disciplines.

A detailed analysis of the consultation was prepared for SSHRC Council and for the Strategic Programs and Joint Initiatives Committee. This report is a summary of the results of the consultation process.

*Bégin-Heick, N. and Brochu, M., "An Environmental Scan to Help Identify Strategic Research Areas in the Social Sciences and Humanities," March 2001.

**Universities and colleges, federal departments and agencies, think tanks, associations, selected industry groups and international granting agencies. A Web-based form was also available to any individual interested in contributing to the process.


Table 1 is an overview of the number of responses received from the various groups of stakeholders who were consulted.

Table 1-Respondents to the Consultation on Strategic Themes

Type of Respondent

Number of Responses



Federal organizations





Provincial and territorial


Think tanks/Associations













The consultation was successful in eliciting considered responses from a wide variety of stakeholders. There was general support for the themes listed in the consultation document. However, many respondents proposed variations on or additions to these themes.

While the language used by respondents was often different from that used in the consultation document, it was generally possible to group the responses under one or more of the broad themes and sub-themes that the environmental scan had identified.

In addition to suggestions for strategic themes, the following elements were noted in the responses:

  • identification of potential partners for strategic initiatives, including overtures from several federal government departments and agencies;

  • recognition by individual and institutional respondents that networking, collaboration and multidisciplinary research are necessary conditions for the success of strategic themes, particularly in areas where research expertise exists but is thinly spread out across the country;

  • acknowledgement that many of the most exciting research developments in areas such as Northern research, the environment and health care would benefit from the involvement of disciplines under the purview of CIHR and NSERC-thus suggesting that new avenues of inter-agency collaboration could be developed;

  • a clear recognition by non-academic stakeholders of the importance of research in the social sciences and humanities to the future of Canada.

Not surprisingly, many of the responses reflected the particular interests and mission of the respondent. Nevertheless, there appeared to be a convergence of views around a few topics.

To test this, the responses were categorized in terms of the themes, sub-themes and examples listed in the consultation document. This showed us that the areas most strongly supported were those under the environmental scan's first two headings: Social Structure, Governance and Organizational Innovation and Sustainability. It also showed us that topics which cut across themes (such as gender and equity, aboriginal issues, health, sustainable development, international issues, etc.) should probably be embedded in any chosen theme.

There are difficulties inherent in trying to categorize responses coming from diverse respondents, some institutional and some individual. In the first place, we had to regroup various ideas and suggestions under a few headings. This made it difficult to reproduce the variety of language used by individuals or groups to describe similar concepts and issues. Secondly, presenting ideas in lists and tables invariably gives the impression of an order of precedence.

Table 2 interprets the responses in as few words as possible. It is not an attempt at classifying themes and topics according to their importance. It is a "fluid" grid. The broader themes, on the left, can include the corresponding sub-topics on the right. But those sub-topics are not exclusively related to the themes they are listed beside. They can often be addressed within other themes. For example, one could construct a theme on Aboriginal development, but one could also include Aboriginal development as a sub-topic in every theme.

Table 2: Potential Themes from the Consultation

Crosscutting Topics
Gender and Equity, Aboriginal Issues, Health, Sustainable Development, International (including globalization) Issues

Governance and social structure

  • public governance, democracy, representation
  • quality standards & risks
  • regionalization, federalism
  • crime prevention, peace & security

Culture and identity

  • culture and memory
  • immigration, citizenship, multiculturalism
  • the circumstances of race and racism
  • home, exile and diaspora
  • factors that shape identity, cultural heritage (art, language, traditions)
  • human rights

Strong beginnings, families and communities

  • work and family;
  • early childhood development
  • youth
  • poverty;
  • housing and homelessness
  • voluntary sector organizations

Sustainability, safe and healthy living

  • Healthy cities
  • rural environments
  • strong communities
  • life in remote areas
  • natural environments
  • Northern research

Aboriginal development

  • Northern research
  • cultural heritage (art, language, traditions)
  • governance
  • health care
  • community development and healthy living

Availability and quality of health care

  • a health care system for the 21st century
  • changing relationships among health care professionals
  • health behaviours
  • prevention and motivation

Bold text indicates topics most often cited.

In the course of this environmental scan and consultation, SSHRC also consulted its stakeholders about a new program, the Initiative on the New Economy (INE). Consequently, several of our respondents proposed themes that were related to the INE. These are summarized in Table 3 below.

Table 3: Themes related to the Initiative on the New Economy

Education & lifelong learning

  • integrated skills development
  • skills and adaptive workforce and innovation
  • all aspects of education, including e-learning, post-secondary education, lifelong learning
  • aboriginal education
  • learning technologies and learning institutions

Nature and impact of the new economy

  • impact of technology on privacy
  • productivity
  • preserving and keeping accessible knowledge in electronic format

Management & entrepreneurship

  • business development, knowledge management
  • social responsibility in business development

Moving Ahead

How SSHRC ultimately constructs the new strategic themes will depend on the criteria below, as well as on the application criteria of the Strategic Grants program itself. SSHRC will also want to avoid duplicating themes already supported under other programs, such as the INE, SSHRC Joint Initiatives and the Networks of Centres of Excellence.

To be selected *, a theme must:

  1. have demonstrable, significant and continuing impact on current pressing societal, cultural and intellectual issues;
  2. be of interest and potential use beyond the academic community;
  3. be defined in such a way as to encourage contributions from a variety of disciplinary perspectives;
  4. draw on an existing capability within Canada to undertake effective research in the area;
  5. build capacity in areas where it is currently insufficient;
  6. fill significant gaps in the area.

All the themes and sub-themes suggested by the environmental scan and many identified in the consultation meet criteria 1 and 2, and can be defined to meet criteria 3 to 5. Criterion 6, therefore, becomes very important in the final analysis.

The nature of SSHRC's Strategic Grants program appears to have been misunderstood by a number of respondents, who proposed very specific topics rather than broad themes. SSHRC may, therefore, need to reflect further on the definition of strategic research, on the needs of the program itself and on the way in which the program is presented to the community.

Furthermore, there is a need to find ways to increase the participation of humanities researchers in strategic research.

Having reviewed practices used in other countries in the course of doing environmental scans for SSHRC and NSERC and in the course of other work, we offer a number of observations:

  • Many jurisdictions take a much longer view of strategic research than do SSHRC and other Canadian granting agencies. In the UK, Germany and in Scandinavian countries, for example, the vision is 20-25 years. France distinguishes itself by having a 5-year vision. SSHRC's vision, by contrast is on current problems and issues (see criterion 1). Focusing on current problems or issues risks producing solutions for old problems. For example, one issue that was mentioned repeatedly is that of Aboriginal development. There are, of course, immediate problems for which immediate solutions must be found. Research, because of its long-term nature, may or may not help with these. However, a view of strategic research that asks "What do we, in Canada, want Aboriginal communities to be like in 20-25 years?" and is accompanied by a research strategy that would get us there is more likely to produce significant and lasting effects.

  • Processes used elsewhere to determine strategic areas of research employ techniques that lead to community consensus-building through the construction of scenarios ** or other methods appropriate for the circumstances, such as the SWOT *** approach ****.

In the course of the consultation, the research community repeatedly mentioned the fragmentation of expertise and the need to create some focus to bring various kinds of expertise together to attack horizontal problems. An example of this are themes proposed by several respondents, such as "Space and Place" (or variations thereof), or "Identity and Diversity" with their mix of subtopics. Such themes would fund research that could provide a novel view on society through arts, literature, history, philosophy, social policies, etc.

There should be a process to ensure that strategic research is coordinated and that the results of such research are assessed and used. From a reading of some of the evaluation documents produced on past SSHRC strategic themes, we have a sense that the current model of the SSHRC Strategic Grants program, while it undoubtedly supports excellent research, produces fragmented results. These results are usually published, but seldom brought together as a body of evidence that could be used strategically. Consequently, the benefits that could be derived from the research are not fully realized.

Despite the strong conviction, found in official university responses, of the need to include the humanities in strategic research, the consultation does not show clearly whether humanities researchers believe in strategic research programs.

The themes given as examples in the consultation document certainly offered scope for the humanities, and they can be reshaped to give the humanities even more prominence. However, this will only happen if researchers believe in strategic research and are intimately involved in the definition of themes.

In the wake of the recent report of the Working Group on the Future of the Humanities, SSHRC has made a commitment to more vigorously promote the participation of humanities researchers in strategic research. However, the primary mover remains the applicant for a research grant.

Our analysis and these observations lead us to conclude that SSHRC should consider:

  • defining themes with a long-term strategic approach;

  • selecting themes that cut horizontally across rather than delve deeper into a particular area (while some respondents suggested themes dealing with women's issues, ethics, multimedia and fine arts, for example, many others believed that such topics should be included as part of an overall strategic effort);

  • encouraging applications that will enhance or create networks of researchers from a number of institutions, sectors and disciplines who can work together on a given theme;

  • vigorously engaging researchers from the humanities in the definition of themes and finding out what deters humanists from participating fully in strategic research.

*(SSHRC, Recommendations of the Standing Committee on Strategic Programs and Joint Initiatives, June 2000.)

**Ian Wilson, "From Scenario Thinking to Strategic Action," Technological Forecasting and Social Change 65, 23-29 (2000).

***Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. Cf. James P. Gavigan and Fabiana Scapolo, Increasing the Impact of Foresight-Tailoring Methods to Objectives, Chapter 12.

****Originally, such methods were used mostly in assessing needs in science and technology but, more and more, they are being applied to social research.