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Arts and social sciences struggle for a place in new economy Add to ...

As close to 9,000 scholars converge on Montreal this week for the largest annual academic gathering in the country, there is soul-searching and some anger over the latest funding snub for the arts and social sciences.

Researchers in the "softer" sciences are nowhere to be found in the government's rich new Canada Excellence Research Chairs program. The ambitious competition - designed to ignite Ottawa's innovation agenda by attracting international research stars with $10-million each over seven years - was tailored to the hard sciences. Initial attention zeroed in on the fact there were no women among the finalists or 19 winners, but social science and humanities researchers also were shut out, and that's got many asking about their place in Ottawa's vision for the new economy.

"It's discouraging and I think it is going to inform a lot of the conversations we have this week," said Noreen Golfman, president of the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences, organizers of the conference. "This gives us an opportunity to talk about what is going on and how we make sure the value of what we do is recognized."

Gerri Sinclair, a high-tech entrepreneur who began her career as a scholar of Renaissance drama and recently headed Vancouver's Centre for Digital Media, believes governments and the public are too quick to draw a line between hard and soft disciplines. And she said some scholars fall into the same trap.

"A graduate degree in the social sciences and humanities is a perfect platform for transformation," she said Monday at a lunchtime lecture on the country's digital future and the evolution of her own career.

"It seems so obvious, we are much more powerful when we harness both sides," she said in an interview. Scientists need to learn to create. Arts and social science scholars need to learn to code, she said. Even the federal granting councils, which divide their dollars based on hard and soft disciplines, encourage silos in research, she said.

"It's an uphill battle," said Judith Woodsworth, president of Concordia University, which is host of this week's meetings. The challenge, she said, is to get the public engaged in the debate and to feel a personal stake, as it does in other areas such as health research. That is something she hopes to encourage this week by opening up the Montreal campus with events for both citizens and scholars.

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