New Canada Research Chair at Prentice Institute

Dr. Susan McDaniel, a University of Lethbridge Sociology professor and director of the Prentice Institute for Global Population and Economy, has been named a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Global Population and Economy, the first Tier 1 CRC in social sciences at the University.

The seven-year, renewable appointment comes with more than $1.4 million, which will support the Prentice Institute's ever-increasing research capacity.

The funding helps McDaniel and her research colleagues look beyond numbers, and dig deeper into the complex issues that face people over the course of their lives, such as aging, income inequalities, access to health care, how global issues affect people and policies that take aging and population shifts into consideration.

"This is an outstanding announcement for the University and for Dr. McDaniel and her research teams," says Dr. Dan Weeks, the U of L's Vice-President, Research.

In total, 253 newly awarded or renewed Canada Research Chairs at 56 Canadian degree-granting post-secondary institutions are being awarded $203.9 million to undertake new research.

This federal investment allows Canadian institutions to strengthen their position as global leaders in research and development, bringing greater economic opportunities for Canadians.

"Susan has done an excellent job of putting the Prentice Institute on a trajectory that will make it a world-recognized centre. She has attracted a significant number of researchers to the Institute as research associates, which in turn has built up our graduate student component. With this new funding, Dr. McDaniel and her colleagues will be able to significantly expand on the Prentice Institute's mandate to look into population issues world-wide."

There are three areas McDaniel – and her expanding world-wide group of researchers – is examining through what she describes as 'life-course research': comparisons between Canadian and other population groups, initially in the United States; the government-supported policy steps countries such as Japan and Korea have taken to manage the challenges of an aging population; and the concept of age itself, and how factors such as economic conditions, lack of healthcare or being a refugee from a war-torn country can have on your life expectancy.

"The life course research concept has several principles, among them that you need to follow a person through their life to get a solid picture of how they are affected by a variety of influences," says McDaniel.

"We are following individuals across time because at each point in your life course, you are existing in a context in a society. For example, if a person graduates from high school or university at a time when the economy is not healthy, they might have trouble finding a job. A whole group of people may be disadvantaged over a long period because of that one moment in time."

By comparison, McDaniel says that a person who benefits from a strong economy may land a better job, have better educational opportunities and also have a longer life expectancy.

McDaniel adds that some people may be disadvantaged at the beginning of their lives, and may be continually disadvantaged as they age, compounding the disadvantages they face as they grow older.

"We are expanding on research where we looked at Americans aged 45-64 over a 14-year period, and a similar group of Canadians over a 16-year period, and found that income inequalities make a huge difference for their prospects in their later years, " says McDaniel.

The key difference between Canadians and Americans is that Canadians have lesser inequality, primarily because of social policies such as public health insurance, but also better risk insurance such as employment insurance.

As well, McDaniel is examining how government policy has changed the way people live in countries where aging and significant population change is normal, such as in Japan and Korea, two countries with very different challenges.

"Japan is the 'oldest' country in the world, while Korea has a relatively young population now but it will age very quickly," says McDaniel said. "What we are finding is that innovations are unexpected. Both Korea and Japan have instituted publicly-funded long term care insurance. When speaking to the Koreans about why they implemented it at this time, the response was that they could afford it now while the population is young, as opposed to being unable to afford it later."

The other issue McDaniel hopes to tackle as part of her research is to change the fundamental notion of 'age' from a number to a concept that takes a whole host of lifestyle experiences into consideration, among them health, education, economic circumstances, and other factors.

"You need to look at age differently based on what happens to a person during their life. A person in a risky or blue-collar occupation might age differently than someone in a less dangerous or physically demanding job," she says. "We need to have a flexible definition of what is 'old', because this research, while not yet fully completed, is important in policy development."

Keeping a finger on the pulse of these world-wide indicators is keeping McDaniel and her teams constantly busy. The new and ongoing research projects will ultimately wind up as journal articles or become parts of four books currently in process.

To date, the effort involves researchers from Canada, the United States, Japan, Korea, Italy and Africa, in addition to the regular complement of faculty members currently at the U of L or who are being recruited to join the Prentice Institute as research associates, guest lecturers, or visiting professors.