Andrea Wishart, a PhD candidate at the Department of Biology of the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon on April 21. HEYWOOD YU/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Sivani Baskaran spent years doing research toward her PhD at the University of Toronto. The work demanded high levels of commitment and long hours – but the paltry salary left her struggling to cover her basic expenses.

After graduating she left for a postdoctoral fellowship in Norway, where she earns significantly more than she would have been paid in Canada. The research she’s pursuing, on identifying chemicals that may be hazardous in the environment, is funded by the European Union.

“I couldn’t continue in science unless I left the country after my PhD. It just wasn’t financially feasible,” Dr. Baskaran said. “What people don’t realize is the way that funding structures in Canada work is really not sustainable.”

The concern among many scientists is that this scenario is becoming more common. As funding for graduate students, postdocs and research-granting councils stagnates, Canada could lose a generation of talent, they warn. And the risk is that such a brain drain wouldn’t just be the result of students leaving the country – but scientific research altogether.

Many graduate students and postdoctorate researchers are living on stipends that pay near the poverty line, according to Support our Science. The grassroots group is organizing a national student walkout on May 1, which it hopes will get the attention of decision makers in Ottawa.

Last year, the government commissioned an advisory panel on the federal research support system, led by Frederic Bouchard, the dean of arts and science at the University of Montreal. The report, released to the public in March, called for a boost to federal grants for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, as well as steady increases in the budgets of the three national research-granting councils.

The government is considering the panel’s recommendations, said a spokesperson for Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, adding that since 2016 Ottawa has provided more than $16-billion in new funding to support science and research.

The grad students have the support of many university research faculty and administrators.

Maydianne Andrade, a biologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus and president of the Canadian Black Scientists Network, said the graduate scholarship she received more than 20 years ago, roughly $21,000, was worth about the same as some of the federal awards available today.

“That is seriously wrong,” Prof. Andrade said. “The backbone of our research, innovation and our ability to respond to global challenges really is graduate students and postdocs.”

Prof. Andrade said she was recently involved with a review of a university biology department where she saw the extent of the financial hardship grad students are facing.

“Almost every student had a loan or a part-time job.” she said, and financial sacrifices were putting pressure on many of them to consider leaving the field.

Andrea Wishart, a PhD student at the University of Saskatchewan, said it would have been almost impossible for her to continue her studies without the financial support of her spouse. Since she began her program she has never earned more than $24,000, she said; last year she made only about $10,000. Recently she decided to get out of research once her PhD is complete, because the finances are too precarious.

“It’s completely ridiculous to have the future of science and innovation in Canada resting on having family members there to support you,” Ms. Wishart, 34, said. “You can’t feed yourself on these stipends.”

Federal scholarships – $17,500 for a master’s student, $21,000 or $35,000 for a doctoral student and about $45,000 for a postdoc – are seen as increasingly lagging the amounts paid elsewhere in the world.

Comparing the level of funding grad students and postdocs receive in Canada with other countries can be complicated as tuition, living costs and work arrangements differ. But U.S. National Institutes of Health postdoc stipends in 2020 began at nearly US$53,000 in the first year, the equivalent of about $70,000 in Canada.

In the U.K., the average base pay for a PhD student is nearly £18,000, or more than $30,000. In the European Union, salaries for PhD students range from about €16,000 ($21,000) in Ireland to nearly €50,000 ($85,000) in Denmark, according to websites that track these figures.

The Bouchard report recommended a 10-per-cent increase per year over five years in the budgets for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Together, the agencies award a little more than $2-billion annually in grants.

Typically, the grants go to university faculty, who then hire students to carry out the research. The salaries these students receive are usually similar to the federal scholarship amounts, which tend to set the market price.

Marc Johnson, a professor at the University of Toronto and one of the organizers of Support our Science, said he’s already seeing the effect of Canada’s low funding levels when it comes to recruitment.

“There is widespread difficulty across Canadian universities attracting talent from abroad,” Prof. Johnson said. “They’re getting two or three times as much elsewhere.”

The Globe and Mail, April 27, 2023