Convergence in the capital

Ruby Heap

“This is why we are promoting interdisciplinary research. There has to be this convergence of fields to find answers to the major questions that we face today."

— Ruby Heap

By Mike Foster

As academic convenor for the 2015 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, a major gathering of 70 scholarly associations, Ruby Heap wanted to showcase the interdisciplinary nature of the research being led by uOttawa professors.

With that in mind, Heap, uOttawa’s associate vice-president, research, says it was a “real coup” to secure seven interdisciplinary symposiaevents that will be open to the public during the congress, which runs from May 30 to June 5 on the University of Ottawa’s campus.

“Our researchers at uOttawa’s institutes and centres deal with very hot issues, not just for academics but for society at large,” says Heap. “It is an exciting time for the humanities and social sciences. As a researcher, I find that my colleagues in the sciences, engineering and medicine appreciate more and more the importance of what we do. This is why we are promoting interdisciplinary research. There has to be this convergence of fields to find answers to the major questions that we face today.”

Under the theme of “Capital Ideas,” more than 8,000 academics, policy-makers and researchers are expected to attend the largest gathering of scholars in Canada, to share findings and forge new partnerships. Now in its 84th year, the congress is an umbrella for the annual meetings of 70 associations representing disciplines as diverse as history, political science, communications, women’s studies, literature and education.

Associate Professor Marc Saner, director of the uOttawa Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP), will host a symposium on the impact of advances in artificial intelligence on the workplace. Telemarketers could soon be replaced by robo-callers, but what about airline pilots, economists and accountants? The symposium, Technological Unemployment and the Future of Work, will feature keynote speaker Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, and Wendell Wallach, of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Bioethics.

Saner, an expert on technology governance and the science/policy interface, says past technological advances led to growth and more jobs, but future job growth could be negated because machines could be doing the work.

“The reason why the world is paying attention now is because it is affecting white collar jobs,” says Saner.

On June 4, Professor Stewart Elgie, director of uOttawa’s Institute of the Environment, will host an interdisciplinary panel titled Climate Change Policies for a Low Carbon Economy. The event will hear past political leaders — including former Quebec premier Jean Charest — from three different countries discuss the challenges they faced and lessons learned as they implemented carbon pricing policies. Charest introduced a carbon tax in Quebec, and partnered with California to introduce a cap-and-trade system. Kristen Halvorsen, former minister of finance for Norway, brought in the world’s first carbon tax in the early 1990s and Brice Lalonde, France’s ambassador on climate change and a former French environment minister, introduced a number of pollution taxes and a carbon tax.

“Bringing in policies to tackle climate change is arguably the biggest challenge facing Canada and the world right now,” says Elgie, adding that the topic is particularly relevant as world leaders are due to set targets for carbon levels beyond 2020 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2015 in December.

“Learning from the experience of places like Norway and France might be useful. In some of these European countries, carbon pricing was brought in by conservative governments. Part of the lesson here is this doesn’t have to be a left or right issue,” says Elgie. “One of the lessons of bringing in climate policy is the longer you wait the more expensive it gets. The climate doesn’t negotiate.”

Promoting children's rights

School of Psychology Associate Professor Elisa Romano, of the uOttawa Interdisciplinary Research Laboratory on the Rights of the Child, Faculty of Law, Civil Section, will host the symposium Promoting Children’s Rights and Resilience: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Presenters from the lab will include Tessa Bell, a postdoctoral student of Romano’s, who has studied behavioural resilience among children in the child welfare system, using data from Ontario Child Welfare. Marvin Bernstein, chief policy adviser at UNICEF Canada, will give a keynote speech on how the child welfare system can be used to promote children’s rights and review the impact of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child over the past 25 years.

History professor Chad Gaffield, university research chair in digital scholarship, says he believes that the impact of the digital age will be a huge issue at the congress. In the past, professors and researchers would publish findings in print, mainly to their own communities. But these days, they are talking internationally to the wider public and need an “engagement strategy.”

Gaffield, who was president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), a federal granting agency, from 2006 to 2014, will take part in a discussion titled When Data Meets the Soul of Culture, which will include Guy Berthiaume, librarian and archivist of Canada.

“We often think of the digital age as a new gadget, but in fact, it is much more about the analysis of data,” says Gaffield. “We are finding that people who study for a BA in history are getting hired by the video-gaming industry and by Google. Our students learn how to analyze human behaviour. That’s why companies are hiring them. The notion that you get a humanities degree and you get unemployed or go work in a coffee shop is wrong.”

Pierre Anctil

History professor Pierre Anctil studied Yiddish manuscripts and newspapers.

Many other uOttawa professors and students will be sharing knowledge that challenges assumptions and pushes boundaries. History professor Pierre Anctil, for example, studied Yiddish manuscripts and newspapers as part of a joint effort by historians and translators to look at Canadian history from the viewpoints of immigrant communities. At a June 3 event jointly organized by the Canadian Historical Association and the Canadian Association of Translation Studies, he will give a talk on Montreal Yiddish literature and translation. Anctil says Yiddish newspapers existed for around 80 years but, until now, they have not been translated.

“What we found particularly interesting was comments about how politics take place in Canada, comments about elections, political mores, how immigrants should react, comments on the attitudes of Canadians to immigrants,” says Anctil. “We are looking at Canada from the eyes of someone coming into the country at any given time. It is part of a trend to read history at the level of those who work and create Canada with their own energies, not from the classes who rule from above.”

Alumni interested in attending can check the full program or join the growing number of volunteers who will make the event a success.

Main photo:
Ruby Heap, uOttawa’s associate vice-president, research. Photo: Peter Thornton.

Chad Gaffield

History professor Chad Gaffield, university research chair in digital scholarship. Photo: Jessica Deeks


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