|April 23, 1999||Volume 6, Number 15|
Renaud impressed with the "intellectual capacity" at U of S, urges more U of S faculty to apply for grants
U of S anthropologist Ernie Walker recently took Marc Renaud, president of the federal granting agency SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council), on a tour of Wanuskewin Heritage Park.
"This is a SSHRC project gone wild," Walker told Renaud as they stood in the $14-million tipi-like interpretive centre perched on the valley edge.
Walker pointed out that 15 years ago, the 116-hectare plot that now plays a significant role in aboriginal-white relations in Saskatoon was just open prairie that seemed destined for condo or golf course development.
That was before Walker got his two SSHRC grants - one in 1984 and another in 1986.
Today, the prairie valley is a National Heritage Site that hosts 70,000 local and international visitors annually. Its state-of-the-art archeology lab run by the U of S is continually discovering new clues to the way of life of Northern Plains people who inhabited the valley 6,000 years ago or more - pre-dating the people who built the Great Pyramids of Egypt.
U of S students spend their summers at the park, helping to unearth and identify the artifacts from sites as diverse as a medicine wheel, bison jumps, tipi rings, and stone cairns.
Busloads of school children annually visit the exhibits and learn first-hand from aboriginal guides about the rich cultural heritage of First Nations people.
With $2 million in annual revenues and up to 60 employees (depending on the season), the park is now a major boost to the local economy. The Native-owned gift shop and restaurant have been a particular boon to aboriginal business. This summer, the park will open a gift shop in Waskesiu National Park.
"All this came out of a SSHRC-funded archeology project," Walker said. "If there had been no SSHRC funding, there would have been no excavations. And if there were no excavations, there would have been no park."
The SSHRC funding enabled his research team to begin exploring the 21 archeological sites identified in 1982 and 1983.
The lab, built when the park opened in 1992, has proved an important off-campus research station for Anthropology and Archeology, its success contributing to the expansion of archeology facilities on campus.
Walker says the Department was at a "pretty low ebb" around the time Wanuskewin was proposed.
"Now we're in the top five archeology departments in Canada. Three research scientists from the Canadian Museum of Civilization are adjunct professors in our Department. And our numbers of graduate students are burgeoning - we've got 26 right now."
So far, five of the 19 pre-contact sites have been dug; but that still leaves decades of research work ahead.
Walker noted the latest lab research - such as working with DNA extracted from bone - blurs the distinction between social science and natural science work. Since this work straddles both domains, it isn't clear whether researchers should apply to SSHRC or NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council).
Renaud suggested exploring whether this type of research could be the basis for a new national centre, part of the federal Networks of Centres of Excellence but based at U of S. Walker plans to pursue the idea.
Renaud was clearly taken with Wanuskewin, which he sees as an excellent example of the kind of societal impact SSHRC research projects can have. Such projects must be well publicized to "open the eyes" of politicians who control the purse strings.
"We have to do a marketing job for the social sciences and humanities - the lack of knowledge of what we're doing is mind-boggling."
After meeting with a variety of U of S humanists and social scientists during his two-day visit, he said he found the discussions "stimulating, lively and energetic," adding: "The intellectual capacity around here seems to be extraordinary."
Given this fact, he said it's puzzling why the U of S gets so few grants. In the last Maclean's survey, the U of S got only 3.4 grants per year (per 100 eligible full-time faculty) from both SSHRC and Canada Council, compared with the national average (for 48 universities) of 12.
He urged more U of S faculty to apply, particularly for grants from the $7.5 million SSHRC will get over each of the next three years for health-related research. This funding, which paves the way for the new Canadian Institutes of Health Research, will help researchers shed new light on the social, economic, psychological, and cultural factors that influence health.
Dr. Michael Corcoran, vice-president (research), reiterated the point during the plenary session. "This is a golden opportunity for researchers in the human sciences and we have to take advantage of it and act quickly."
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