Stagnant funding keeps Kingston researchers in poverty, restricts diversity, say graduate students

Queen’s University graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, staff, and community supporters joined in a nationwide walkout Monday, May 1, 2023. Kingstonist photo.

Queen’s University graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, staff, and community supporters joined their contemporaries in a nationwide walkout Monday, May 1, 2023, in response to the lack of attention to research funding in the recent federal budget.

According to Support Our Science, provision of a living wage for researchers would mean increased diversity and innovation in Kingston and across Canada. Support Our Science is a grassroots movement that demands increased federal investments in scholarships, fellowships, and grants to support increased pay for graduate students and postdocs.

One of the local organizers of Monday’s walkout, Samantha Hollands, is a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department at Queen’s Zechel Lab. Hollands explained that Support Our Science is “calling for the federal government to take action to address the lack of funding for research in Canada, and specifically funding for the Tri-Agencies.” This refers to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

“Funding from the federal government to those agencies hasn’t really increased in over 20 years,” Hollands explained. “So what that means in practice is my supervisor, the professor that I work with in my research group, and for everyone else as well, the funding that they get to take on a new student or start a new project has stayed stagnant.”

Hollands pointed out, “With inflation, cost of living, everything’s more expensive than it was 20 years ago. That’s just how the economy works, it’s essentially a pay cut every year.”

Since compensation for research work hasn’t matched the rising cost of living, shockingly, many of Canada’s best and brightest researchers are living below the poverty level.

According to Hollands, the most recent federal budget “didn’t address increasing funding agencies and funding research and innovation in science in Canada. We are calling on the government to increase the value and the number of federal scholarships and fellowships to grad students and postdocs, and also calling on them to increase allocations to federal research grants for the express purpose of increasing pay to grants and postdoc.”

The objectives of Support Our Science align with the “Bouchard Report,” also known as the Report of the Advisory Panel on the Federal Research Support System, published in March 2023 by the Ministry of Industry, which indicated that research in Canada is at a vulnerable state due to lack of investment.

“While Canadians can be rightfully proud of their country’s achievements in science, technology, research and innovation, we currently find ourselves in a precarious situation,” reads the introduction to the report. “Canada’s research support system funds academic research to investigate fundamental questions and supports new ideas, transformative knowledge creation, and ground-breaking discoveries. It also supports the training of highly qualified people deployed across all sectors of society and the economy. Although Canada has made significant investments in the past to develop, attract and retain world-class researchers, it does not have the appropriate structures to fully leverage these investments. Moreover, these investments have not kept pace with the actions taken by our international competitors and with the transformation of the research enterprise.”

Based on the Bouchard report, the Support Our Science movement is asking the government to increase the value of grad scholarships & postdoctoral fellowships to reflect inflation since 2003 (when they were last increased), index scholarships/fellowships to inflation going forward, increase the number of graduate and postdoctoral fellowships to reflect the 100 per cent increase in the number of graduate students in Canada during the past 20 years, and increase the Tri-Agency research grant budget by 50 per cent to support higher pay for grads/postdocs.

For the layperson, it is important to grasp that researchers like Hollands are contributing to extremely important Canadian innovations, while still being asked to pay for the privilege of attending the university where they work.

Hollands noted, “I would say, like, 80 per cent of what you’re doing, the bulk of your graduate degree is research-based, but I’m still paying over $8,000 in tuition… doing what is essentially clinical research… mentoring undergrads and junior students that are entering the lab. Especially in your Master’s where you’re working with postdocs, you’re collaborating with other groups, you’re working in the lab, and then also teaching, so you’re actively involved in teaching and delivering courses at the undergraduate level.”

Stipends that researchers receive are meant to cover their tuition costs, but Hollands pointed out that they haven’t been updated in 20 years. 

Hollands explained, “Stipends are a little bit different across departments. Every department, I think, handles graduate research funding a little bit differently. I can’t speak to the other departments… for chemistry, there’s a base amount that you are guaranteed as a graduate student; I think last year it was $20,000 for a Ph.D., a little bit less for a Master’s student… So obviously, if $20,000 minus $8,000 is $12,000 — that’s well below minimum wage for Ontario, especially the cost of a living wage in Kingston, or any major city, really. So that’s why we’re hoping to increase funding and set those numbers to bring graduate students and postdocs above the poverty line.”

“Funding graduate students and postdocs is the single most important and urgent need in the Canadian innovation economy,” stressed Holland.

She pointed out the important part that this funding plays in creating a more equitable playing field in education and innovation. “The more we restrict high-level education and graduate studies to people who have come from wealthy backgrounds, the more we are restricting higher level education and research from equity seeking groups, minorities, all different kinds of people… the more we are cutting off diversity. And when we lose diversity, we lose innovation… In order to continue seeing, not just Queen’s University, but Canada, continue to be a leader in innovation on a global scale, we really do need to address the lack of funding.”

In order to “continue having top-level talent, brilliant people pursuing their passions and their research interests,” Hollands asserted that researchers must be able to depend on a living wage. “[The burden of wondering] how the heck am I going to afford rent? This tuition? What am I going to do? It really cripples us in the innovation department by allowing the system to continue this way.”

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