In a recent University Affairs article, a PhD student argues that Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is more likely to offer funding to projects that focus on certain socially-relevant topics. The author writes, “Since 2003, the subject areas with the highest success rates each year have corresponded to areas of high social relevance, though this is explicitly against SSHRC’s aims for the program.” I would argue that SSHRC-funded projects display a distinctly left/liberal, or even sometimes neo-Marxist slant, although SSHRC would not likely recognize it as such. In the case of funding for doctoral students, it is possible that this slant is the result of a bias on the part of programs or faculties that screen out politically undesirable applications (since only a portion of the applications are ever sent to SSHRC). It is also possible that most or all applicants are already working within a left/liberal intellectual framework.
Just glancing (in an admittedly unscientific way) at the titles of doctoral and post-doctoral projects that received SSHRC funding in 2011-2012, there are a number of left/liberal keywords and key themes that stand out, including disability issues, ’empowerment’ of marginalized groups, feminism, gender, human rights, hybridity, Indigenous issues, performative aspects of identity, postcolonialism, queer rights, race relations, the recognition of marginalized ‘voices’ and cultural ‘narratives,’ resistance to power structures through the formation of alternative ‘sites’ or ‘spaces,’ and the value of social participation (especially through technology). There are even more queer studies projects than one might expect, although this is in line with the current anti-bullying push in the mainstream media, which amounts to queer activism in a new and particularly effective guise.
If SSHRC is biased, it is likely due to their emphasis on “knowledge mobilization” or making knowledge socially relevant and beneficial. It is part of the SSHRC atmosphere, and I expect it would weigh on the minds of adjudicators. The existence of such bias would not necessarily mean that there are SSHRC recipients who do not deserve their funding. There are probably many excellent projects on the SSHRC lists, and there are some listed that do not seem, on the surface, to have a strong left/liberal orientation. The SSHRC intellectual landscape, however, is one that, although it may allow left/liberal academics to thrive, is inhospitable for those with different academic goals, such as those with rightist political orientations or those without any political objectives at all. Welcome to our Brave New World of socially-useful knowledge production and mobilization.