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Health research in the Faculty of Arts

By Janet Harron

Due to recent changes at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), many researchers in the social sciences and humanities who focus on health-related research now must direct proposals to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). CIHR provides funding opportunities for themes of health research that concern social, cultural, environmental and population health.

In order to explore funding opportunities at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Applied Health Research (NLCAHR), organizers from NLCAHR, the Division of Community Health and Humanities (Faculty of Medicine) and the Faculty of Arts are holding a workshop on Nov. 9 for researchers at Memorial.

“Any arts faculty whose research concerns health in any way would benefit tremendously from attending this workshop,” said Dr. Lisa Rankin, acting associate dean of research and graduate programs. “We’re very lucky to have several successful CIHR award winners presenting at this session.”

Anthropologist Jill Allison describes herself as someone whose MA and PhD focused on medical research. In 2003-04 she was awarded $19,000 a year for three years from SSHRC for a project that looked at the political, moral and medical constructions of infertility and assisted conception in Ireland. This is the sort of project that, due to recent changes at SSHRC, would now be funded by CIHR.

Dr. Allison explains that in Ireland the emphasis on family has a broad social dimension, and that includes the role of motherhood and children.

“I was interested in how people work through a series of complex decision-making issues around infertility, issues which include financial, ethical, physiological and logistical considerations,” she says. “Ultimately it was a lot more complicated than I had originally thought.”

In terms of IVF and embryo freezing, Dr. Allison found that most people’s stories revolved around social stress and emotional difficulties and states that for many women questions of identity are still caught up with an idealized view of motherhood.

“Easily and widely accessible birth control is a relatively new concept in Ireland. And this new notion of choice puts reproduction firmly into the ‘individual decision making camp.’ There is therefore a widespread assumption that childlessness is by choice rather than being an issue of infertility.”

In Ireland the right to life of the unborn in written into the Constitution (abortion continues to be illegal), although courts have not yet determined whether frozen embryos exist as unborn entities. In addition, in Ireland, unlike Canada or the UK for example, there is no regulatory body or legislation to cover IVF or assisted reproduction.

“Until I did this research I might have been a bit of a doubting Thomas – I wanted to find a way to increase empathy and it [doing the research] opened my eyes in many ways. These things are about embodiment and living in the body. When people question funding treatment for infertility based on the challenge that it is not a life-threatening condition, I ask what would you say to a blind person who could have surgery to restore their sight,” argues Dr. Allison.
Dr. Allison recently submitted a proposal to CIHR for a project surrounding the social and political meanings of a medical genetic diagnosis in this province. She plans to look at how being predisposed to a genetic disease shapes what it means to be a Newfoundlander and how it impacts on one’s sense of self and sense of belonging to a community.

“I am proposing to look at a number of communities in Newfoundland and Labrador – for example Bonavista has had a high incidence of a type of cardiomyopathy called ARVC (Arrhythogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy) and there are considerably high incidences of stomach and colon cancers in the St. John’s and Bell Island areas, as well as other areas throughout the province,” she said.

She is thankful for guidance on this proposed project from the members of the GE3LS (Genomics, Ethics, Environment, Economic, Legal and Social Issues) team who work with the Atlantic Medical Genetics and Genomics Initiative ( She said that it is quite unique to find a genetic research project such as AMGGI that has incorporated the social, environmental and ethical aspects of disease diagnosis from its very beginning.
“I hope to provide information that will be useful to them and helpful to the communities in question and ultimately to provide assistance to those who have certain needs and expectations for testing and available recourse in the wake of diagnosis,” concluded Dr. Allison.

In a press release from CIHR regarding the changes, Dr. Pierre Chartrand, vice-president, Research Portfolio, commented, “The CIHR Act explicitly provides CIHR with the mandate to invest in research covering a broad range of health determinants – social sciences and humanities are very much a part of this landscape and certainly are already well represented in the CIHR research community … As stated by SSHRC, the agency will reduce the amount of funding it provides for health-related research that is eligible under the mandate of the CIHR.

“We are working closely with our partners at SSHRC to ensure a co-ordinated approach during this transition period. We are working together to establish guidelines for determining whether applications are suitable for SSHRC or CIHR. We are committed to a healthy and robust research community in Canada and welcome applications from all researchers committed to improved health.”