Support Our Science: Why Canada Needs to Do More Now

Published: January 20, 2023

by Yuan Chao (Tim) Xue, Maïa Dakessian, Kaitlyn Easson, Sai Priya Anand, and Bipin Kumar, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)

Financial compensation from most Canadian academic institutions for early-career researchers is insufficient, thereby making it difficult for these individuals to cover their basic living expenses without taking on additional debt. In many cases, trainees have to make hard choices to balance their personal lives with their career goals.

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars play a critical role in Canada’s knowledge-based economy, contributing to and taking leadership roles in cutting-edge research, among other key academic service work.

Financial hardships facing Canadian graduate students and postdoctoral scholars

Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars play a critical role in Canada’s knowledge-based economy, contributing to and taking leadership roles in cutting-edge research, teaching, and other key academic service work, such as grant writing, mentorship, and administrative committees. Despite this, financial compensation from most Canadian academic institutions for these essential early-career researchers is insufficient, thereby making it difficult for these individuals to cover their basic living expenses without taking on additional debt (see the stories of the Faces of Researchers). In many cases, trainees have to make hard choices to balance their personal lives with their career goals.

External funding options from the Tri-Agencies — the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) — are central to the Canadian research landscape and help drive research excellence and innovation. The funding programs offered by the Tri-Agencies include fellowship opportunities for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. However, the values of these awards have stagnated with no or minimal increases since 2003, while inflation and costs of living continue to increase at unprecedented rates (Figure 1).

These low wages disincentivize individuals from pursuing graduate degrees or continuing their academic pursuits in Canada and may motivate them to seek more financially favourable opportunities elsewhere, including transitioning to other career paths or pursuing academic careers in other countries.

The effects of inadequate funding may be especially salient for scholars from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and for parents and caregivers with financial dependents, who may simply not be able to pursue their graduate studies or postdoctoral fellowships without adequate pay. Consequently, reforming funding systems for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows is an important target to ensure equitable support for scholars from diverse backgrounds.

Figure 1: Award amount for funding from Tri-Agencies for Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars from 2003 to 2020.

Support Our Science Campaign

The Support Our Science (SOS) Coalition is a group of researchers across Canada passionate about providing a sustainable and stable future for the next generation of researchers in Canada. The SOS campaign is supported by non-profit organizations such as Evidence for Democracy, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, Science & Policy Exchange, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, the Ottawa Science Policy Network, the Toronto Science Policy Network, and the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution.

To bring this important issue to the attention of the federal government, the SOS Coalition organized rallies in Ottawa and Montreal on August 11 and 17 of 2022, respectively, that garnered wide national media coverage. In these rallies, hundreds of supporters, primarily graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, gathered to deliver an Open Letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne. On October 8, 2022, Minister Champagne acknowledged the concerns raised by the coalition and voiced his support for the movement during an interview on the CBC’s science radio program Quirks & Quarks.

The group also submitted a petition (e-4098) to the Government of Canada on August 8, 2022, urging the government to increase its investments in supporting the next generation of leaders in science and research. This petition obtained over 3,590 signatures by the time of its closure on October 7, 2022, and was presented to the House of Commons by Member of Parliament Richard Cannings on October 19, 2022.

Immediately after the rallies took place, the SOS Coalition submitted a pre-budget proposal submission to the Ministry of Finance, co-signed by Science & Policy Exchange, the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars, the Ottawa Science Policy Network, the Toronto Science Policy Network, and the Anti-Racism Student Association.

In this budget submission, the SOS Coalition recommended the following changes (Figure 2):

  • Increase the value of Tri-Agency scholarships for Master’s students and postdoctoral fellows by 48% to match inflation since 2003.
  • Increase the value of the NSERC Postgraduate Scholarships (PGS-D) and SSHRC Doctoral Fellowships to $35K/year to match the value of the Tri-Agency Canada Graduate Scholarships (CGS-D) for doctoral students.
  • Increase the number of graduate scholarships by 50% and double the number of postdoctoral fellowships offered by the Tri-Agencies annually.
  • Provide ongoing support for award values to match inflation on a long-term basis of 2.1%.
Figure 2: Proposed changes to Tri-Agencies funding for Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars as compared to the current award amount.

Make your voice heard

Most recently, the SOS Coalition has been encouraging individuals to send letters in support of the movement to their Members of Parliament. Over 1,700 letters have been sent as of October 24, 2022!

This is an ongoing process and if you are supportive of this movement, please take three minutes to complete the submission process using this link to voice your support to your local Member of Parliament.

A first step to lay the groundwork for structural changes

On behalf of the Government of Canada, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, responded to the petition on December 2, 2022.

He recognized that even though funding has been budgeted for Canadian scientists and researchers, specifically since 2016, “graduate students and trainees continue to face increasing financial pressures”.

As such, the Honourable Champagne expressed that the Government will continue to work with the Tri-Agencies to find better ways to support the next generation of Canadian researchers. Since this response, the SOS Coalition continues to reach out to members of the Parliament to advocate for better funding for scholars and fellows. In fact, much more work is needed to increase equity in access to education in Canada.

Although the SOS campaign focuses on increasing the number and the value of federally funded graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, we hope that raising the amount of funding from the Tri-Agencies will inspire wider and deeper changes in funding norms within the Canadian research system. This could include reforms to provincial fellowship programs, internal scholarships offered by universities, and institutional minimum stipend guarantees for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. As highlighted recently in Science and Nature, the increasing disparities between research fellowships and industry opportunities are unprecedented and need to be addressed to retain and support the next generation of leaders in Canadian science and innovation.