Are you wondering what those Priority Areas are about? How did they get identified? If you aren’t doing research in one of those areas, what are your chances of getting funding?
Don’t panic. Although the name has changed in the recent restructuring of SSHRC programs, these are not new.
Disclaimer: I do not work for SSHRC. This is my interpretation of the new program architecture confirmed through a few informal conversations with current SSHRC staff involved in the changes.
Priority Areas are funding envelopes
One thing to remember is that there is still the main funding envelope and that main envelope is the biggest chunk of the money going to research.
The allocation of grants in that main envelope is still researcher-driven. Your grant proposal is making a case for why your research objectives are likely to make a significant contribution to knowledge. The evaluation criteria just break that general criterion into smaller pieces.
The new program architecture has not reallocated the budgets. It has only restructured how applications are adjudicated to make the whole process more efficient in it’s use of resources (mainly people’s time).
Where did these Priority Area funds come from?
It depends on the area.
Sometimes the SSHRC governing council decides to allocate some of SSHRC’s core budget to research in a particular area. The Aboriginal Research area is this type. You may remember that there has been an Aboriginal Research program in the Strategic Grants division for several years now. This priority area is the continuation of that program.
Sometimes the money comes from other government departments or agencies. These used to be called Joint Initiatives and were managed through the Strategic Grants division (as was). The money came from the budget of another government department that wanted to dedicate some of their budget to research relevant to their policy making. They came to SSHRC to run the peer review process.
There is nothing on the list like that now but the Sport Participation Initiative of the past several years, and previous strategic programs focused on Official Languages were of this type.
Sometimes, the priority area is attached to the funds in the federal budget process. The Environment and Northern Communities and Digital Economy priority areas are of this type*. Basically, there was new money for SSHRC in the federal budget but the new money was already designated for research in particular areas before it even hit SSHRC’s account.
For example, in the description of the Digital Economy research area you will find this statement:
In keeping with the provisions of the 2011 Federal Budget, SSHRC has committed up to $7 million in additional funding for new research and related activities on the digital economy, with a particular focus on partnerships.
As well as references to government policy papers.
Most of the increases to SSHRC’s budget over the past 10 or 15 years have been of this type. You may recall the Initiative on the New Economy which ran from 2000-2005, for example. In the past, these were usually run as separate programs in the Strategic Grants division.
*I think the Innovation, Leadership and Prosperity area may be of this type, too, but it’s harder to tell from the description. There was new money allocated to improving research in business topics a few years ago and that might be this.
What is new in the new program architecture?
These funding envelopes pre-date the new program architecture and the new label “priority area”. As I understand it, the only thing that’s changed is the process by which these funds are allocated.
In the past, there were separate peer review panels for each envelope of money and type of grant. This had several consequences
- smaller strategic programs usually had multi-disciplinary adjudication panels
- there was more demand for peers to sit on committees
- some of the research relevant to the strategic funding envelope wasn’t funded out of that envelope because the researcher didn’t apply to the strategic program but rather to the main Standard Research Grant program
- some of the people who applied to strategic grants weren’t really doing relevant research and had to reapply to the Standard Research Grant program the following year to get funding
- some members of the academic community thought that the quality of proposals funded was not equivalent in strategic programs; that it was easier to get funding there and thus securing a strategic grant was rewarded differently in promotion and tenure processes
The new process draws on experiments that SSHRC tried beginning with the final round of the Initiative on the New Economy back in 2005, and then used for other programs, including the recent Sport Participation Initiative.
Instead of setting up a separate committee, the researcher applies to the main competition (Standard Research Grant as was, now Insight or Insight Development, or whatever). The application is adjudicated alongside all the other applications and ranked along with the others without regard to the priority area.
When the funding is being allocated, those applications marked as relevant to the priority area are funded out of the priority area budget instead of the main budget. That means the main budget can fund one more on the list for every one funded out of another budget (roughly, since amount requested isn’t equal).
There is a process to ensure that the applications marked as relevant actually are relevant. This involves the 1-page statement of alignment (formerly statement of relevance) that you add if you’ve ticked a priority area box.
If your application is not judged to be relevant you still get the money from the main budget because you ranked high enough. (This is a big advantage to researchers over the old system. You no longer have to risk applying to the wrong program.)
Of course there are also excellent projects on the list that aren’t funded because the budget ran out before SSHRC got that far down. If you are in the group immediately below that cut-off, and your project is relevant to a priority area and there is money left in the priority budget envelope, you will be funded from that envelope.
The process is still very competitive. Many excellent proposals are not funded out of any budget. But if you place in this race, it doesn’t really matter to you which pot of money they take your grant from, does it. You are funded to do the brilliant work you want to do.
The politics of targeted funding
There is a separate issue about why new money is targeted in this way and why the core budget has not increased significantly.
The issue of who decides which areas are targeted and how those decisions are made is also important. Whether the decision is made by the Minister of Industry (who is responsible for SSHRC), or SSHRC’s governing council or peer adjudicators in a researcher-driven competition is important. How members of the governing council are selected and appointed would also be a relevant topic of political debate and action.
But these questions are not directly relevant to whether you apply for an Insight Grant this October or not, nor do they directly concern the peers who sit on the adjudication committees for the grant.