Two UAlberta Law professors earn prestigious federal research grants

Cameron Jefferies, Jennifer Raso to study cetacean conservation laws and the digitization of social assistance, respectively

Sarah Kent - 18 August 2020

Associate Professor Cameron Jefferies and Assistant Professor Jennifer Raso of the University of Alberta Faculty of Law have secured major research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Raso and Jefferies were awarded Insight Development Grants for their respective projects. The grants support early-stage research, enabling the development of new research questions or experimentation with a new theoretical framework.

Cameron Jefferies

“I was delighted to get the news that my IDG application was successful,” said Jefferies, whose project, “Uncharted Waters: The Future of Canadian Cetacean Conservation and Ecosystem-based Management,” advocates for greater protection of whales, dolphins and porpoises, which are collectively known as cetaceans.

Many of these species are at risk due to “environmental pollution, habitat degradation, climate change, fishing bycatch, reductions in prey species, and vessel strikes,” said Jefferies.

“I approach this project with a sense of urgency since time is running short for critically endangered cetacean species, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale and the Southern Resident Killer Whale,” said Jefferies.

Building on his expertise in international wildlife and ocean conversation, the project will focus on cetacean-based law and policy in Canada.

Jefferies plans to analyze Canada’s existing laws relevant to cetacean conservation, such as the Fisheries Act and Species at Risk Act, and compare them to peer jurisdictions that have been recognized for their conservation efforts.

Although Canada has not supported commercial whaling operations since the 1970s, the government formally withdrew from international regulatory efforts for cetacean conservation in 1982. Jefferies would like to see this change as emerging evidence shows Canada’s existing laws are insufficient for meaningful protection of cetaceans.

The project’s goals are to propose reforms to legislation, encourage participation in international conservation efforts, and improve the status of endangered and threatened cetacean species.

“Many whale species in all oceans Canada borders are in need of enhanced conservation, and my hope is that a critical examination of Canada's prevailing approach will help reveal key solutions that safeguard these species for generations to come,” said Jefferies.

Jennifer Raso

A recognized authority in digital law, Raso plans to expand her research on digitizing social assistance laws with the support of the Insight Development Grant. Her project is titled, “Shifting Front Lines in the Digital Welfare State: Coding Canadian Social Assistance Laws.”

“As an early career researcher who conducts ethnographic fieldwork, this funding is vital,” said Raso. “The Insight Development Grant will enable me to hire research assistants from law and sociology to help me observe and interview coders and to analyze what we find.”

The project will examine how converting text-based social assistance laws into algorithms may change the meaning of those laws.

“Social assistance laws are rarely black and white,” said Raso. “They often require caseworkers to make complex judgments, such as when a statute requires caseworkers to decide whether someone has made ‘reasonable efforts’ to find employment.”

“The danger is that, when these laws are translated into computer code, this flexibility — and the space it provides for considering each individual’s unique circumstances — may disappear.”

The project builds on Raso’s doctoral research, which focused on how caseworkers used their discretion to interpret welfare laws. It was during her fieldwork in Ontario that Raso discovered software was displacing the legal decision-making of front-line staff.

Algorithmic systems are becoming increasingly common in many decision-making processes for social assistance in Canada, including welfare and disability benefits.

These algorithms are developed by computer programmers, who work on the code, and used by front-line workers, who input the data and who often must communicate decision results to members of the public.

“While ethnographers have long studied how caseworkers use discretion, we know very little about the technicians who transform laws into code,” said Raso. “As more government benefits are delivered digitally, especially in the age of COVID-19, it’s crucial that we learn more about how turning benefits laws into algorithms may impact how these laws function in practice.”

She plans to study both how laws are converted into code and the people who are doing this work by undertaking ethnographic studies in Alberta and Ontario, where social assistance programs are already being digitized.