Welcome to The Human Factor, a podcast that puts the social in science.
I’m Cheryl Croucher. Every day we learn of new scientific discoveries, new technologies – all which come with the promise to make life better. But do they? The Human Factor explores the impact scientific inquiry has on our daily lives and our decision making.
This is Episode 4 of The Human Factor.
My guest is Gabriel Miller, President and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
This organization represents over 91,000 researchers and graduate students across Canada. That’s a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to helping the rest of us make sense of change, and maybe even help us do things better.
That interview coming up on The Human Factor.
Time: 21:41 Minutes
The Federation For The Humanities And Social Sciences Supports Researchers Nationally
I first learned of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences when I was looking for a young academic studying indigenous history. The Federation was about to launch Its 2021 Congress and for the first time ever, this massive annual event would be virtual – thanks to the global covid pandemic.
I learned the FHSS has roots dating back over 90 years. In 2022, it represents over 91,000 researchers and graduate students in the humanities and social sciences across Canada.
We live in a society where the major push from industry and government promotes innovation in technology. Yet new technologies like artificial intelligence and social media platforms disrupt society in many ways. And generally speaking, we are rarely prepared for these changes.
Gabriel Miller is the President and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. He offers this insight into the value of these disciplines in shaping our world.
CC: GABRIEL, WHAT IS THE FEDERATION FOR THE HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES?
GM: The Federation is a community of scholars and students in a broad range of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences, everything from philosophy, political science, literature, to economics, sociology, languages, and we bring them together to really serve them in three main ways.
One is to create opportunities for them to share knowledge and build relationships so that they can produce the very best knowledge about our society and about ourselves.
And we do that primarily through the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which is Canada’s largest gathering of academics and really a unique event in the world because of the number of disciplines who gather under one roof.
We also create opportunities for those scholars to share their work and their knowledge and their understanding of the country’s biggest challenges with broader audiences.
So, we have a series of speakers we bring in normal times to Ottawa and in pandemic times we do it virtually. So that policymakers can hear about what our scholars are learning and what our researchers are finding about the state of our democracy, about climate change, about homelessness, about any number of public policy challenges.
And finally, we give that community a voice in national affairs and especially in terms of the decisions the government makes about where it puts its investments to support research, but also how it’s supporting knowledge creation and evidence-based policy generally.
So, we bring that whole community together and allow them to speak with one voice, which of course is critical to having an impact.
CC: HOW LARGE IS THAT COMMUNITY? HOW MANY MEMBERS DO YOU HAVE? WHO ARE YOU REPRESENTING?
GM: Our membership consists of about 160 organizations. Half of them are universities themselves which, of course, have faculty and students studying in these disciplines. And the other half are scholarly associations.
So these are, in Canada, usually fairly small volunteer driven organizations that are built around specific disciplines like the Canadian Political Science Association.
The leadership of those institutions are who we’re accountable to, but, of course, through them, our goal is to really serve and support about 90,000 researchers – so tenure faculty, instructors in universities, and graduate students who are working in these disciplines at any time.
CC: THE FEDERATION ACTUALLY HAS A LONG HISTORY. WHEN DID IT GET STARTED?
GM: Well, it goes back to the early 1900’s and like so many associations, it starts for very practical reasons.
There’s an interest both in having researchers and scholars in different parts of the country gather to share what they’re working on, to learn from one another, to build networks. But then also as time goes on, to influence the government and to explain why it’s important, for instance, for the federal government to make investments in Canada’s universities and in the humanities and social sciences, in particular.
The current form of the Federation really came in to being in the mid-nineties when an Association for the Social Sciences and Association for the Humanities came together to create a single organization that would serve everyone in both of those communities.
CC: WHAT’S YOUR BACKGROUND? HOW DID YOU END UP WITH THESE GUYS?
GM: I grew up in a family that really believed in the value of a liberal arts education. As far back as I can remember the idea that learning about ourselves and learning about our institutions and learning about the world that we’re a part of was just part of being a good citizen and also part of what made life interesting and enriched it.
I studied philosophy in university and, not only did I find it interesting and stimulating, but what really struck me by the experience was how useful it was because I found that it really helped me become a clearer thinker and a better communicator.
Studying philosophy was kind of the first time in my life that I realized I really need to think about the meaning of the words I’m using and not just sort of throw a lot of fancy words out and hope that that’ll convince people. That really scrutinizing my choices and my ideas and the way I express them was important.
And that became immediately useful to me when I entered the workforce, starting as an assistant to a city counselor in terms of how to unpack a problem. It might be a local zoning dispute or an issue around which traffic calming measures get implemented.
But that ability to sort of understand the problem and systematically think about the different ways that it could be approached and solved, it was like a Swiss army knife that I felt could be used almost any circumstance.
And so, as my career, mostly around working with national associations and doing advocacy work with the federal government, whether it was for cancer or for municipalities, as it moved forward, I always kept an eye out for opportunities to come back and be closer to those disciplines and have a chance to work on behalf of them because I felt like I’d been so well-served.
So, when the opportunity to work for the Federation came up five years ago, I was very anxious to put my name forward and very lucky to get the job.
CC: YOU SAY THAT YOU HAD A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION. I ALSO HAD LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION. I WENT THROUGH SOCIOLOGY AND POLITICAL SCIENCE. AND YET TODAY IT SEEMS THAT THERE’S A GENERAL COMPLAINT THAT OUR, FIRST OF ALL, STUDENTS ARE NOT ENCOURAGED TO TAKE THE LIBERAL ARTS OR THE HUMANITIES. BUT AT THE SAME TIME, WE SEEM TO BE DUMBING DOWN PEOPLE IN TERMS OF CRITICAL THINKING. IS THAT A CHALLENGE FOR YOU? OR DO YOU SEE THAT? AM IF OFF COURSE HERE?
GM: Well, I think it’s a challenge for all of us and I think you’re definitely describing a real phenomenon. There’s a contradiction we’re living right now, which is, on one hand, evidence piling up every day of how important it is that people become educated citizens so that they understand our institutions, so that they can navigate unprecedented volumes of information that are coming at us through social media, for instance.
We can see it in terms of the social tensions and skepticism that we’ve seen around some of the vaccines in response to the pandemic where we can have great scientific breakthroughs, but if we don’t also have the trust and the knowledge within our communities to make the most of those and to collaborate, then their value and their impact is diminished.
So, what we see on one hand is just more evidence every day that this is important.
On the other hand, I think, it’s true that there is some work to do to convince people that studying these disciplines is in their best interest and in the best interest of our society. And the information we’ve seen, I think the best research we’ve got, shows that the biggest challenge in this area is economic insecurity.
What we saw in the United States and, in a lesser extent but also in Canada, was after the financial crisis in 2008, a substantial shift from some of the disciplines in the humanities especially, in the social sciences to a lesser degree, into areas where there was a perception that it would lead to more opportunities for income or jobs.
A lot of this is mythology. It actually turns out that when you look at the numbers and the statistics, people who graduate with degrees in these disciplines do very, very well. And not only do their employment rates and their incomes compare very favorably to the general population and to graduates of other disciplines, but they also have a freedom to define their career that maybe some folks who study more narrow technical disciplines may not.
So, yes, I think there definitely is a tension that we’re experiencing and I think a lot of it has to do with just making sure people have the most accurate information about what they can do and the benefits of studying in these fields.
CC: IF I COULD GIVE AN EXAMPLE, ONE OF THE AREAS THAT I THINK WE ARE DELVING INTO NOW WITHOUT REALLY KNOWING WHERE WE’RE GOING, IS IN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. WE HAVE INCREDIBLE TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES IN ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND MACHINE LEARNING AND THERE’S ALL KINDS OF APPLICATIONS, WHICH COULD BE FOR THE GOOD IN TERMS OF IMPROVED HEALTH CARE, THAT SORT OF THING. BUT WE HAVEN’T REALLY AS A SOCIETY LOOKED AT WHAT ARE THE ETHICS AROUND THIS. BECAUSE IF WE HAVE MORE AND MORE ROBOTS TAKING OVER IN A SENSE OUR JOBS, HOW DO WE DEAL AS A SOCIETY WITH THE ETHICS OF, FIRST OF ALL, TAKING PEOPLES JOBS AWAY AND THEN NOT REPLACING IT AWAY WITH SOMETHING ELSE FOR THEM TO DO TO EARN INCOME. IS THAT SOMETHING THAT SOME OF YOUR RESEARCHERS WOULD BE LOOKING AT?
GM: Absolutely. I think it’s sort of a textbook example of how something that on the face of it looks like a technical issue that might be not obviously related to the humanities and social sciences on the face of it, turns out to be very, very closely integrated with the issues and the concerns that researchers and the students in our disciplines are preoccupied with.
And it’s exactly as you say. With it and so many other technical advances, there is the importance of stopping and reflecting on and taking into consideration the ethical questions.
But then, there’s also all of the practical implications of addressing the social effects of these technologies. So, with artificial intelligence not only do you have the need for ethicists, but what kind of legal structures do we need to manage this?
You know, if we have self-driving cars, how do our traffic laws need to change? What is expected of someone who’s traveling in one of these vehicles?
I mean, the list of questions is endless, and most of them are questions that need to be addressed by people who are not necessarily experts in the software or hardware that enables this but are experts in the social structures and the society within which it’s going to take place.
So, it’s a terrific example of exactly how relevant an education and research in these areas is to what’s happening.
CC: AND HOW WOULD WE EVEN DEAL WITH THAT CONVERSATION? WHAT SORT OF FRAMEWORK WOULD THAT CONVERSATION GO INTO?
GM: Well, it’s happening now in many different places. And this is one of the reasons why universities are so important. Because I think what we can see often is, well before a conversation really takes shape in the public sphere, it’s been happening in different forums within universities for years, maybe decades.
So, you have people in faculties of law, you have philosophers, you have economists all having conversations about the significance of this and about the way that it’s affecting us now and how it could affect us in the future.
And one of the reasons our organization matters, and let’s face it, it’s a challenge in an era where people are so specialized, is to bring those conversations that are happening in different parts of the university together. So, that the economists and the lawyers and the philosophers and the political scientists, their conversations are emerging. So, that as a society begins to engage in those questions more broadly, there’s ways of integrating that knowledge.
It’s not easy, partly because our political institutions struggle to have big conversations, and certainly long-term conversations. But it’s really important when that moment comes, there’s people ready who’ve been engaged those conversations already to inform it and to help move it forward.
And, just to add to this, this is also one of the reasons why we have to be a little bit careful when we look at research and assume, oh, that doesn’t seem relevant. Sometimes it takes a while for what people are studying to kind of show its relevance.
But when that moment comes, you want to make sure there’s people who are in the know who can help us.
CC: CAN YOU GIVE ME EXAMPLES, SAY, A COUPLE OF EXAMPLES OF WHAT YOU SEE AS BEING EMERGING SOCIETAL CHALLENGES THAT PEOPLE IN THE HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES COULD BE ADDRESSING OR ARE ADDRESSING AT THIS TIME? WHAT’S EMERGING?
GM: One of my favorite thinkers was Marshall McLuhan, a great Canadian philosopher. I’ll call him a philosopher. I’m not sure he would have used that term. And his preoccupation was media and changes in the way that we communicate. And I really feel like that is a defining challenge of this moment and a defining opportunity.
And let’s take what’s happening in Europe right now. On one hand, social media is creating unprecedented opportunities to produce propaganda and creating unprecedented challenges for citizens and governments to kind of sift through what’s going across their field of vision to figure out what they really believe is happening.
At the same time, we have a situation where the leader of Ukraine is able to go and film a message to the people of his country and to supporters around the world showing he is still in that city and that he’s fighting, and that despite the propaganda that’s being put out, here are the facts of what’s happening with him and with his country.
So, this incredible dichotomy in terms of how these tools can shape us.
I think understanding the implications of instant, global, mass digital communications is really a defining challenge of the moment, both in terms of the ethics of it, its implications for our politics, our economy, but also for equipping people to navigate that world.
Because, you know, we often talk about unprecedented challenges, and sometimes we’re exaggerating. But the volume of information that people are now asked to consume on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis is just like nothing else that humans have ever experienced. And it’s going to take, I think, new skills, new resiliency, and new knowledge for us to succeed in that environment.
CC: IT REALLY IS ENOUGH TO MAKE YOUR HEAD EXPLODE, ISN’T IT? WHEN I THINK OF THE MAJOR CRISES THAT WE’VE DEALT WITH, JUST EVEN OVER THE LAST MONTH, IT’S HARD TO EVEN TURN ON THE TV AND LOOK, BECAUSE WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NOW? I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE.
GM: Well, another I think gift of these disciplines is that they can give us respite and perspective.
So, they can also allow us to step back from that kind of mad rush of events and knowledge, whether it’s through art, whether it’s through literature, whether it’s through historical understanding, to make more sense of what can feel like a very, very chaotic moment, but also to kind of recover a bit of our humanity so that we have the energy and the inspiration to get up and do it again tomorrow.
CC: YOU HAVE A BIG CONGRESS COMING UP IN MAY. TELL ME ABOUT THAT.
GM: Well, as you can imagine for an organization that spends a lot of its time bringing people together so that they can talk and share ideas, the pandemic has been a game changer, to say the least. But it’s really had, I think, a benefit that will last beyond this crisis, which is, it’s given us a much better appreciation of the potential of technology to expand the reach of what we do.
And so, this year’s Congress will be virtual as was last year’s. Congress takes years to plan and we just didn’t feel confident enough in our ability to bring large numbers of people together in May of 2022. And I still feel like that was definitely the right decision. We’re all hopeful about where the pandemic is heading, but none of us can take anything for granted.
But in 2023 I expect we will be back in person on campus, but with a new ability to extend those conversations to people who can’t be with us in person through the technology that we’ve learned to use over the past two years.
So, it’s been both a really exhilarating opportunity to find a way to continue doing our jobs in a very unusual circumstance, but it’s also been an education for us that I think will change the way we approach our work in the future.
CC: GABRIEL, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR SPENDING TIME WITH ME TODAY.
GM: It’s been my great pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Gabriel Miller is the President and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. FHSS is based in Ottawa.