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Blog: Let's Fund Community-Driven Research

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

Rich Janzen

This reflection on building community is one in a series of blogs written by the Centre for Community Based Research (CCBR). CCBR’s mission is to build responsive and supportive communities, especially for people with limited access to power and opportunity.

“We envision communities that are responsive and supportive. Research driven by community members makes this vision come to life.” (CCBR Vision Statement)

Where we invest our financial resources tells us a great deal about what we value. “Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also”, goes the saying. That is a truism for societies as much as it is for individuals.

You might ask, where is our heart when it comes to research in our country? What kind of research does our society invest in? And what does that tell us about what we value as a society?

For starters, consider our investment in academic research. The 2018 federal budget allocated $925million over five years to the three granting research councils in Canada (SSHRC, CIHR, NSERC). This so-called “fundamental research” includes both basic research with an end goal of advancing knowledge and applied research that also tries to solve practical issues affecting people’s lives. While there are some important exceptions, most of this academically funded research - even the applied research - is determined by the curiosity of researchers and carried out by their expertise.

There are also non-academic sources of research funding across our country. Within the broad field of social research there are any number of government departments and ministries, foundations, think tanks, and other organizations that dole out applied research dollars. It’s harder to quantify the amount of this kind of funding. But I think it’s fair to say that the majority of resources also go to researcher-driven studies. Similar to academically-funded research, these research projects typically do not include the active involvement of people who are at the heart of the topic in driving the research process. In short, our society seems to value expert-driven research conducted “about” and “for” communities.

For almost 40 years CCBR has been championing an alternative approach to social research. What if research was driven not by research experts but by community members – those whose lives were affected by the issue under study? What if they determined research topics that resonated with them and helped to improve their lives? What if they determined the questions being asked, the methods being used, the meaning of findings, and how these findings are shared and acted upon? And what if financial resources were allocated to build their capacity to carry out, even lead, research on those issues that affected their lives?

In CCBR’s early years (1980-1990’s), funds for research “driven by” communities were scarce. There certainly was no academic funding available. Over the years pockets of funding began to appear. One of the academic granting agencies (SSHRC) formed the Community University Research Alliance in 1995 and later its Partnership Grants both of which created room for non-academic involvement in research. (In 2005 CCBR was the first, and to this day one of only a handful of non-profit organizations to be eligible for these types of SSHRC grants - we’ve led nine of them in total). In the health field, another academic granting council (CIHR) developed a funding stream for community-based research in HIV/AIDS research. Outside of academia, the requests for research that is community-driven has also increased. A good example is the current initiative of the Mental Health Commission of Canada which is supported by CCBR. They fund and build the capacity of community members to conduct community-driven research on the topic of mental health and cannabis.

Despite these advances, research where community members truly drive the research agenda and its implementation continues to be relatively rare. What is more, community-based organizations remain at a disadvantage in receiving academic funding. And non-academic funded research still favours research driven by expert researchers and consultants, even if these researchers try to “engage” community member in their research.

One legacy of the global pandemic has been the spotlight shed on the inequities of society. With such awareness has come calls to reallocate resources to address these inequities. The defund police/reallocate police funds movement is a good example. It suggests that those who are at the centre of the issue (racialized communities) should have direct access to resources to develop their own communities, even if this means diverting some funding away from local police departments towards more "upstream" preventative community-based programs. Such structural redistribution of resources would signal the value of racial equity within society.

Perhaps it is time for a similar call in the realm of research. If society values social justice, more resources should be allocated to enable community members to conduct action-oriented research to address the inequities that they experience in their lives. To be clear, increasing funding for community-driven research is not a call to lower the standards of research. In fact, resources may need to be allocated towards building the capacity of community members, professional consultants, and academics alike to conduct this kind of research with excellence (see CCBR’s Community Based Research Excellence Tool).

Do our research investments give us a window into what we value as Canadians? I think so. Increasing funding for community-driven research would certainly go along way in demonstrating that society’s heart does indeed beat for equity and with justice.

Rich Janzen is Co-Executive Director at the Centre for Community Based Research, a non-profit organization on the University of Waterloo campus.

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