Universities have three missions. Research and teaching are the better-known. Together, they underpin the third, equally important one – contributing to overall economic and social prosperity by producing talent and knowledge to address societal issues and socio-technological challenges through innovation.

Canadian universities are certainly doing more than their fair share of research and teaching. However, they are not doing nearly enough to actively transfer the talent and knowledge needed to make our communities, our country and our world a better place.

This problem is especially pronounced for social sciences, humanities and arts (SSHA) programs.

If the third mission is to be woven into the fabric of our SSHA programs in higher education institutions, then SSHA talent, knowledge and practices need to be better outfitted for innovation and channeled into the correct outlets.

There is no simple way to achieve this. But a good step forward is to have our universities identify needs, institutionalize new knowledge co-creation approaches and expect public and private funders to require innovation partnerships to leverage the wealth of expertise of our social partners.

Missing: third-mission funding and commitment

new report from The/La Collaborative, a multi-institutional, cross-sectoral network led from McMaster University, shows that Canadian universities and public funders value community impact and innovation. But there is also a glaring gap between their aspirations to foster broader social prosperity and the reality.

One of the problems is simply the lack of funding and commitment to the third mission. Assuredly, things are getting better but the effort is still insufficient.

For instance, in 2017, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) added a “partnership engage grant” (PEG) that requires applicants to work directly with community partners.

Both the number of awards and their success rate have consistently increased between 2017-22 and SSHRC’s investment in the PEG program increased by 38 per cent in 2021.

But the funding still represented only 6.3 per cent of SSHRC’s overall budget for that year ($1.13 billion), which was itself a fraction of the overall $304-billion federal funding for science, innovation and technology activities in that year.

Not walking the talk

Another problem is the universities themselves. While university websites prominently feature community-focused initiatives, few seem tied to sustained community partnerships or benefit from ongoing institutional support.

Fewer than half of universities in Canada have units to support community-focused knowledge mobilization and fewer still have put in place the type of incentives and rewards needed to ground community impact and innovation aspirations into institutionalized practices.

Universities often fall short of meeting nonprofits’ needs for innovation and their demands as employers for better skills. The universities also miss opportunities to tailor experiential learning to reflect the reality of community-based work.

In other words, universities are not putting their money where their mouths are.

Making matters worse, academic culture is a gravitational force pulling universities away from their third mission. More and more, the expectations and definitions of academics focus on two things – specialization and peer-reviewed publication. Neither of these contributes to community innovation.

Graduate students, untenured faculty and those belonging to underrepresented groups feel the pressure to meet expectations linked to current definitions of academic merit and career success.

This makes them even less likely to develop initiatives that aim for community impact and innovation. It also deprives universities of their rich perspectives and energy in pursuit of the third mission.

Access to opportunities for community impact and innovation should be part of equity objectives. Plus, innovation thrives on this kind of diversity.

What would support SSHA’s contribution to higher education’s third mission? Better external funding through grants from governments and foundations would be a great start and a powerful motivator.

Grant programs must be redesigned

To improve how universities contribute to social prosperity and innovation, however, the funding question is not only “how much?” – the answer is more! – but also “how?”

Funders need to make more deliberate efforts to understand how knowledge is needed and used, as well as the strategies and institutional incentives that support it.

For example, setting aside the debates around mission-driven research, all involved agree that at least some federal and provincial grant programs must be redesigned to support SSHA impact and innovation in the community. The April federal budget announcements concerning science and research are ripe with possibilities.

Embracing co-design, co-development and co-implementation methods as critical to innovation, and better social engagement would be a good start. That requires funding structured to support the required connectivity.

Social innovation and community stakeholders also need more sophisticated conceptual toolkits and more flexible ways to assess community impact and document the value of SSHA in that context. Since assessment is an opportunity to learn as much as a method to measure outcomes, frameworks need to integrate developmental approaches.

The challenges that social sciences, humanities and arts face when it comes to innovation and social impact are not insurmountable.

Experience over the past few decades in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – has demonstrated that private-sector industries benefit enormously from co-op placement programs, industry liaison offices and technology transfers.

But this has involved considerable efforts and intentional strategies around technology transfer, knowledge brokering and institutional support to ensure that universities are engaged with private-sector partners to provide the expertise they need and access to emerging technologies. That model can apply to other areas.

Our universities need to be more than places of ”higher learning” or “incubators” for science and technology. They can also be anchor institutions that offer everyone more benefits and opportunities to live in a sustainable world and continue to generate better ideas of how everyone might thrive.

In that version of the future of Canada’s prosperity, the science agenda will have figured out how to put social sciences, humanities and arts to work.