April 2015

Message from the President

1. The University Rankings Roller Coaster - Robert Lacroix, FRSC, Université de Montréal and Louis Maheu, FRSC, Université de Montréal

2. Canadian Surveillance Trends and Edward Snowden - David Lyon, FRSC, Queen's University

Message from the President

Simon Langlois

Several Fellows of the Royal Society wrote to me to support the proposal recommending that the RSC Council increase the number of Fellows elected to our Academy each year. This is currently limited to 13 in the Anglophone division and 5 in the Francophone division.

This increase is justified by the enormous growth in professorial staff in the disciplines represented within our Academy, which cover large fields of expertise from administration and management, to education sciences, law, journalism, social work and, of course, the entire large family of social sciences. The direction of the Academy makes this a priority.

We need to start identifying potential candidates now for the next Fellows election in 2016 because the nomination process is long. I would like to stress that it is important that letters of support do not come from the proposed candidates’ immediate entourage nor friends or collaborators (particularly co-authors of scientific contributions). The selection committee members of the Class of 2015 insisted, understandably, on this aspect because the credibility of the nomination process is at stake.

Enjoy this newsletter and thank you to the colleagues whose work is featured. The pages of the newsletter are open to your future contributions!

Simon Langlois
President of the Academy of Social Sciences 

1. The university rankings roller coaster

Robert LacroixLouis Maheu

If you believe the 2014-15 edition of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, we should be worried about the international standing of Canada’s world-class universities. 

What’s the rational for such pessimism? According to THE research universities rankings, over the last four years (from 2011-12 to 2014-15), eight Canadian universities that usually have done well in its rankings have seen a continual drift downwards. Together, they’ve dropped a combined 83 ranks over the period. McMaster University has lost the most at 29. 

But should we really worry about this seemingly sad state of affairs? Actually, no. 

THE recent diagnosis of Canada’s research universities

In our book, Leading Research Universities in a Competitive World (McGill-Queens’ University Press, February 2015), we review the characteristics of the two most known international rankings, THE and ARWU (Academic Ranking of World Universities). Our analysis concludes that THE, in particular, suffers from a great deal of year-over-year instability, mainly due to the importance it places on the results of an annual survey of academic peers concerning institutional reputation. These subjective reputational factors greatly affect institutions’ scores in two of the ranking’s major indicators: teaching and research quality. Although THE improved its methodology in 2010, these reputational factors continue to lead to some particularly surprising year-to-year variations. 

From 2011-12 to 2014-15, THE lists the same eight Canadian universities among its top 200 world-class universities. As mentioned, these universities collectively dropped 83 spots during this period. However, analyzing the scores from indicators used for these rankings changes the diagnosis considerably. Between the two periods studied, the drop in the total score for the eight universities is only 43.3 points out of a total of 2479.6 for the five indicators used. Therefore a potentially insignificant variation of 1.75 percent in the total score results in an apparently impressive drop of 83 places for Canadian universities. What’s more, the two indicators that include the results of the reputation surveys, a frequent cause of volatility in the rankings, account for 94 percent of the drop in the total score. 

In short, THE recent ranking’s pessimism regarding Canadian research universities’ future is quite ill-founded. Meanwhile, in the ARWU rankings for the same period, Canada’s top eight research universities showed much less volatility. Moreover, the relative position of McMaster – which was such a problem in the THE – remains very stable in the ARWU for the entire period.  

More relevant questions

The 2014-15 THE ranking asks a relevant question regarding the unequal international distribution of world-class universities between countries. What happens when world university rankings are normalized according to certain characteristics of these countries?  For example, if you divide the number of top universities in the THE for our four-year period by a country’s gross domestic product, Canada receives a rather middling score among about 30 countries.  

In Leading Research Universities, we explore this crucial issue through a macro-economic model that looks at six factors: a country’s total population, GDP, per-capita GDP, research spending as a percentage of GDP, proportion of the labour force with a university degree, and economic density (GDP multiplied by GDP per capita). For the 2012 edition of both international rankings, seven OECD countries – the U.S., Germany, France, Japan, Australia, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada – account for 59 percent of the top 400 world-class universities, 73 percent of the top 200, 80 percent of the top 100, and 90 percent of the top 50. We hoped this model would shed light on why some of these countries’ research universities fare better than their international counterparts.

For Canada, a small country by the standards of this group, on the basis of the model’s variables and with the leading American institutions serving as a reference point, we expected a maximum of 8 to 10 Canadian institutions in the top 400. Actually, that year, Canada had no fewer than 16 and 18 universities in the top 400 in the ARWU and THE, respectively. This strong performance persists, though to a lesser extent, through the top 200 and top 100. In these two categories, Canada posted a higher proportion of research universities than we would have expected relative to U.S. universities in the same category. Canada also had its fair share of research universities in the top 50. Thus a similar but more comprehensive standpoint reveals a quite better performance for Canadian research universities at the international level.  

This macro-economic model is certainly not the final word on why some countries do better than others in the rankings. It nonetheless corroborates that countries with the highest economic density tend to place a greater number of universities in international rankings. However, this model did not fully explain why some countries surpassed expectations while others fell short.  

The bulk of our book, therefore, looks at four national university case studies – the U.S., U.K., France and Canada, selected for their research universities’ contrasting performances within international rankings – to explore with numerous quantitative and institutional datasets other more complex questions. Namely, how universities cope with organizational factors and institutional arrangements in performing their multiple missions: amount of resources available; diversity of their funding sources; access patterns to human, physical and financial resources; public governmental funding; state regulation of higher education; and finally how, for a given university system, all of these structural factors are combined.     

This comparative analysis establishes the efficient and structuring organizational environment of Canadian universities. However, universities, particularly research universities, can and must do even better. In an increasingly globalized, knowledge-based world, the Canadian university system, as documented in our book’s conclusion, is facing major challenges and must improve some of its key areas of performance.

* ‘Excerpts of: AU/UA Universty Affairs Magazine, The university rankings roller coaster, by Louis Maheu & Robert Lacroix, February 18, 2015, see http://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/university-rankings-roller-coaster/#_ga=1.24999994.1272441514.1424293853

2. Canadian Surveillance Trends and Edward Snowden

David Lyon

Edward Snowden stole the surveillance limelight in mid-2013 by disclosing to the public the secret activities of the US National Security Agency. The revelations from just the first handful of the 58,000 documents the whistle-blower took from his former employer, Booz Allan Hamilton, have stirred ongoing controversy around the world. It is a hard act to follow, should anyone wish to do so, but it is more than interesting to us that the revelations echo and underscore some of the key trends followed – and suspected -- in the Surveillance Studies field for many years.

Our research at the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s has grown steadily since 1992 and rapidly since 2000, especially after the attacks of 9/11. As well as obvious cases such as video cameras and surveillance drones, we also look at the far more significant field of ‘dataveillance.’ This refers to what may be ‘seen’ of our lives in the data trails that we leave throughout each day, wherever we are. We think of surveillance as any kind of ‘monitoring for management’ or, more fully, any systematic and focused attention to personal information for purposes such as entitlement, security, protection or control. 

The work is multi-disciplinary and international but revolves around a core group at Queen’s and at other Canadian universities, mostly in the social sciences (we gratefully have help from colleagues in Law and Computing, for example). We depend on funding for collaborative research from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, under several different programs. From time-to-time we work with security-related groups, such as the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, responsible for monitoring airports. We also partner with colleagues in agencies such as the federal and provincial privacy commissions, and with civil liberties, human rights and internet advocacy groups – for instance OpenMedia.

A culminating project of the most recent program in which we participated is an accessible analysis of some key surveillance trends, illustrated with Canadian examples, under the title Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada (also published as Vivre à nu: la surveillance au Canada).  Surveillance in city taxis or of high school children is featured here, but also the ways that Canadians are highly susceptible to NSA surveillance due to the use of fibre-optic cable systems routed through the US. We believe that work supported by the public should also be available to the same public, in some form – hence our illustrated book. Several of the trends we identify help to show how relevant are the Snowden revelations and why it is urgently important that Canadians take both the trends and Snowden’s work very seriously. 

For example, Snowden’s work resonates with ours by showing that surveillance today is not only a significant aspect of state activity – the Communications Security Establishment of Canada (CSE) features in some significant revelations – but that surveillance is also carried out by corporate bodies such as internet and telephone companies. Not only that. Surveillance today depends increasingly on what the agencies call ‘OSINT’ or ‘Open Source Intelligence.’ This, in other words, is information gleaned from our own daily use of the internet and hand-held devices. You do not have to agree with Snowden to see the relevance of his revelations or to see how significant is the evidence he produced.

Our examination of key surveillance trends starts with the rather obvious one, that surveillance grows exponentially in the twenty-first century. What may be less-than-obvious, however is just how much data is gathered on each of us, constantly. This makes us increasingly visible to organizations that themselves are decreasingly visible to us. Other trends include the ways that ‘security’ has become a major driver of surveillance, how surveillance is embedded in everyday environments such as homes, buildings, vehicles and how it often depends on data taken from our bodies by biometric technologies such as body scanners or voiceprint recognition. Other evident trends are the globalization of surveillance – although its impacts are always inflected by local circumstances and history – or the ways that we interact more than ever with surveillance using social media.

This kind of research is attractive to our PhD students and postdoctoral fellows, not least because it refers to events and processes that appear daily in the mass media but also because it offers opportunities for research with implications for policy and regulation. One of the first books anywhere that theorizes Facebook surveillance was based on the PhD of one of our students, Daniel Trottier.  Jeff Monaghan studies police surveillance; Krystle Maki welfare surveillance; Ciara Bracken-Roche examines domestic drone use in Canada and the UK. Groups of researchers at the SSC have produced reports for the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner on location-based surveillance, video cameras, border security and surveillance drones. These are great chances for learning how to cooperate on team projects, which is also underscored in our bi-annual spring doctoral school. 

International students work alongside Canadians on diverse projects – Sachil Singh looks at credit scoring systems and social inequality in South Africa, while Midori Ogasawara unearths details of Japanese colonial surveillance in Manchuria during WWII. Alana Saulnier can compare her interviews with those who have difficult experiences of surveillance crossing the border into Canada, with Özgün Topak’s recently completed dissertation on refugees and others from the global south trying to cross into Europe via the dangerous borders of Turkey and Greece. The SSC also welcomes a steady stream of visiting scholars from many countries – such as Australia, Brazil – currently, Marta Kanashiro from Campinas -- China, France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, the UK and US, each wanting to learn more about researching surveillance in their own context.

Research at the SSC has other spin-offs, too. One of our postdocs, Scott Thompson, leads an initiative to create the world’s first academic surveillance archive, in conjunction with Queen’s University Archives. It contains items such as Canadian war-time ID cards as well as documents illustrating the unhappy relationship between liquor boards and aboriginal people. Recently, one of my colleagues, David Murakami Wood, whose main work is researching surveillance in ‘smart cities,’ collaborated with Charles Stankievech in an event at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s and a few years ago we co-sponsored a whole exhibition there, featuring work of, among others, Canadian installation artist David Rokeby. Similarly, we organize bi-weekly seminars and occasional mini film festivals to explore surveillance as screened for theatre audiences. I introduced the Snowden documentary, Citizen Four, in Kingston’s Screening Room, recently.

Being involved with the SSC in its work on surveillance trends, especially as they reflect what Snowden’s work  also reveals, is tremendously stimulating for all concerned. For team members it is also gratifying to know that our work can contribute to making a real difference in our digital age.


David Lyon, Surveillance Studies: An Overview, Cambridge: Polity 2007.

Colin Bennett, Kevin Haggerty, David Lyon and Valerie Steeves eds., Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada / Vivre à nu: la surveillance au Canada Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2014. Also available as a free online PDF; see surveillanceincanada.org/

Daniel Trottier, Social Media as Surveillance, London: Ashgate 2012.

The Surveillance Studies Summer Seminar is held in even-number years.

David Lyon, Surveillance after Snowden, Cambridge: Polity, forthcoming September 2015.