Queen’s grad students, postdoctoral fellows walk out in demand for increased federal funding

Graduate students from Queen’s University in front of Summerhill, the oldest building at Queen’s erected in 1839, participating in a nationwide walkout organized by “Support Our Science.” Photo by Kingstonist.

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars from Queen’s University participated in a nationwide walk-out Monday, May 1, 2023, to demonstrate their value to universities and to Canadian scientific advancement. The researchers are demanding federal increases in funding and the elimination of poverty wages for students on the front line of innovative and transformative research.

The protest was organized by Support Our Science (SOS), a grass-roots organization advocating for increased pay for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in Canada, which represents tens of thousands of graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty in Canada.

The group, who identified themselves as “scientists and engineers working in Canada,” outlined their motivation in an open letter addressed to Francois-Phillipe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in which they “respectfully request that [the] government increase funding to graduate student trainees and postdoctoral scientists funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).” 

While SOS recognized that the current government has made “much-needed contributions to increase funding to the sciences since 2015,” they wrote that “unfortunately, despite these important investments, concomitant investments have not been made to some of Canada’s best trainees in science and engineering, many of whom now live below the poverty line.”

SOS argued that NSERC graduate scholarships are intended to cover the cost of living and tuition for “Canada’s brightest and most promising early career scientists and engineers” calling scholarship recipients “the emerging leaders meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow related to climate change, plastic pollution, natural resource use, development of clean technologies, prevention of future pandemics, cures for disease, to name only a few.”

The value of scholarships supporting these researchers has not changed since 2003, nearly 20 years ago, the group points out, while at the same time, “both the cost of living and tuition have steadily increased over that period, these stipend levels no longer provide adequate support for graduate students” amounting to less than minimum wage, “forcing some of the brightest minds in Canada into poverty or to seek better-funded positions abroad.”

SOS also called for annual increases to scholarships so that stipends keep pace with inflation going forward, calling NSERC’s investment in their training  “essential to retain the top talent needed to drive our innovation economy. Otherwise, we will continue to see our top early career scientists leave Canada for international graduate and postdoctoral opportunities, where funding levels are often higher.”

Reached for comment, Queen’s University, provided the statement:

“As a research-intensive University, Queen’s is a strong proponent of research and innovation toward the advancement of knowledge and social impact, and recognizes the important contributions made by our Graduate students and Post-Doctoral researchers towards this endeavour. Queen’s supports students’ right to protest and to highlight their general concerns around funding. The university’s academic and research mission can only succeed when we are able to offer students the outstanding education and high-quality supports and services that help them succeed. To that end, Queen’s is supportive of a funding model—inclusive of grants, the tuition framework, and financial assistance—that protects the financial sustainability and quality of Ontario’s universities, while also ensuring access for students.”

In late March 2023, graduate students joined by local Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) representatives and supporters rallied at Queen’s in opposition of tuition fees. At the time, Principal Patrick Deane was lobbying the provincial government to end the tuition freeze, according to PSAC at the time.

This is a developing story with more coverage to come.

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