English Matters

Guest Post: Research Climate Change, by Julia M. Wright

[Ed. note: The post below, by Julia M. Wright, is offered as part of our ongoing series of opinion pieces, and is being simultaneously published in our Winter Newsletter.   ACCUTE members may propose opinion pieces for the blog, provided they engage issues of interest to the broader ACCUTE membership; if accepted, they are subject to editing for length and other matters.  This and other such opinion pieces reflect the author’s own views, and do not necessarily represent the opinion of ACCUTE or its membership; they are offered in hopes of generating discussion among our members. See Julia’s own blog, University Governance in Canada, here.]

This piece comes out of thinking about what I’ve learned over the last decade or so about research policy, and particularly the dramatic transformation of SSHRC programs over the last few years.  Over the last decade or so, I’ve been on adjudication committees for new programs as well as attended a meeting of tier-2 Canada Research Chairs in Ottawa, and, for the last two and a half years, I’ve been my Faculty’s Associate Dean Research and my university’s SSHRC Leader.  As a SSHRC Leader (the term always reminds me of the Simpsons’ “Leader” song), I get SSHRC news for my institution, meet with SSHRC executives and other university SSHRC Leaders twice a year, and occasionally pester SSHRC for some information (they’re very patient with me). I’ve also served on an ad hoc SSHRC committee to discuss the Insight Grant program, and on the SSHRC panel for the five-year review of the Vanier CGS program.  And now I’m on the Board for the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and meet with SSHRC in that capacity as well.

We are all well aware that the Harper Interruption, as I like to call it, pushed SSHRC towards promoting research with industry and community partners on terms one could view as facilitating corporate subsidies and cuts to services, two hallmarks of global austerity.  The Partnership program, in this light, is the flagship of an attempt to use research funds to reinforce, rather than inform or challenge (or even just ignore), government policy. Nova Scotia’s infamous Bill 100 is also in this vein, though, of course we have seen nothing as dire as the public-private partnership at the centre of Spectre (2015).

Also in line with austerity’s tacit premise that those with more money are more capable, maximum amounts for grants were raised while overall funding was largely unchanged, dropping some success rates down as low as 20-25%, nearly half what we saw in the old Standard Research Grant program (typically 39% in its final decades). The lower success rate was exacerbated by increased opportunities to draw on multiple grants: the same person, for instance, could be a co-applicant on two Partnership Grants and the principal investigator on a Connection and an Insight Grant, so that lists of successful applicants were not only shorter but also overlapped.  All of this led to concern about a shrinking number of funded researchers, with related concerns about the diversity of our research culture, the range of questions we are exploring, and regional distributions. This concern extends to the rebranding of scholarships under the Talent program: there could have been twice as many Vaniers at $25,000, for instance.  And, likely at least in part in response to government devaluing of the social sciences, SSHRC has invested some of its very limited resources in promotional initiatives that celebrate a small group of stellar outcomes.  We are far from talking about the 1% in Canadian research, but an effect of all these changes has been to push us in that direction—more resources in the hands of fewer scholars.

Programs may change again, and hopes are high with a new federal government that includes many Social Sciences and Humanities graduates. The more durable effects of the Harper Interruption, and the continuing reliance on austerity principles in general, may be felt at the policy level:  the push to cut duplication or overlaps in government services has been mirrored in our granting councils through “harmonization.”  While many of us are happy to see the Tri-Agency attending to the problem of interdisciplinary research that falls through the chasms that divide the three councils (CIHR, NSERC, and SSHRC), harmonization has had other foci:  open access, research misconduct, and an allocation system for Master’s scholarships.  Oh, and thank harmonization for the Canadian Common CV and the Research Portal too.

I’ve written on Open Access (here and here), and remain deeply concerned about its disregard for the specific concerns of the Social Sciences and Humanities (particularly in dealing with sensitive or copyright material), its high cost (by increasing the payment of high open-access fees charged by large, multinational academic publishers), and the effects on tenure and promotion applications and even SSHRC adjudication.  How will committees evaluate the scholarly record of applicants who have been bound by the policy but work in fields where the top journals do not allow open access?

The drive to harmonize also includes the Draft Tri-Agency Statement of Principles on Digital Data Management, a further extension of SSHRC’s recent Research Data Archiving Policy. They’re having trouble defining “data,” except in terms so broad that the year of first publication for Lyrical Ballads may count as data under the policy: “recorded material that validates research findings and results, and enables reuse or replication.”  Here’s the good news:  the Draft includes the requirement that “Research data must be managed in conformity with all commercial, legal and ethical obligations,” which arguably erases the need for most SSHRC researchers to think about this policy at all, given the requirements of copyright, confidentiality and privacy, and publishing contracts, and the obvious uselessness of archiving data (texts, facts) that are already in libraries.

But here’s my bigger concern. Touch the casing of a desktop computer and feel it vibrate—that’s the fan cooling the CPU.  Run your cellphone for a 20-minute voice-only call and feel how hot it gets.  Heat is the side-effect of significant and inefficient energy consumption. USB memory keys draw little power and none at all when they are unconnected, making them rather green ways of storing files for occasional access, but the Data Management push implies internet connectivity: “All research data resulting from agency funding should normally be preserved in a publicly accessible, secure and curated repository or other platform for discovery and reuse by others” (“Draft”).

The environmental costs of such storage are potentially massive, requiring the manufacture of both servers and the cables that connect them to the internet (have you read about the shortage of rare earths and problems with their extraction?), the power that the servers need to run, and the power and water that it takes to cool all those hot servers.  This is not news.  Wendy Chun mentioned it in her ACCUTE/CDSH plenary at the 2015 Congress, and it has been widely reported (see examples here, here, and here).  This isn’t about text files, which are very low-impact, but video, sound files, hi-res images, big data, and the risk that duplication will multiply the storage costs for a single unit of information. There are green technologies, but using them to reduce the impact of new server farms rather than offsetting our current oversized carbon footprint doesn’t exactly seem like the smart ecological choice. And there’s still that pesky problem with rare earths.

Our research climate change may, this time, also affect planetary climate change.

–Julia M. Wright

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