Marc Johnson, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto, stands beside undergraduate students Keerath Bhachu, left, and Isabella Vessio on May 11. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Federal scholarships intended to support some of Canada’s most accomplished graduate students in science have become so devalued by inflation that those who receive them are effectively earning below the poverty line absent any additional means of income, a coalition of senior researchers has warned.

The group is petitioning Ottawa in an open letter to raise the amounts of scholarships – something that has not happened since 2003. Organizers of the initiative said an increase would help prevent more of the country’s top research talent from leaving Canada to train elsewhere or from giving up on their academic careers.

More than 270 university professors, including two Nobel laureates and 37 recipients of the Order of Canada, signed the letter, which was made public on Thursday. It has also been endorsed by most scientific societies across Canada.

The letter calls on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and François-Philippe Champagne, federal minister for Innovation, Science and Industry, to increase the level of support for recipients of the Canada Graduate Scholarship (Masters program) and Postgraduate Scholarship (Doctoral program).

“Imagine not getting a raise for 19 years,” said Marc Johnson, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto. “I was a graduate student in the early 2000s and I was getting the same that these students are getting today. It’s unacceptable.”

Prof. Johnson said he wanted to draw attention to the stagnant scholarships after the government opted not to address the issue in the latest federal budget despite calls from research advocates to do so. With Louis Bernatchez, a geneticist at Laval University in Quebec, he wrote the open letter calling on the federal government to increase the numbers and amounts of scholarships and awards it grants to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

The group has also offered to meet with Mr. Champagne to discuss the funding constraints that face entry-level academic researchers in Canada.

According to federal figures, during the 2021-2022 fiscal year, 840 Masters level students were selected to receive a one-time scholarship of $17,500. Doctoral students can compete for three-year scholarships that provide $21,000 or $35,000 per year. Last year, those fellowships were awarded to 1,100 and 990 students respectively. In addition to helping with living expenses, the scholarships can be used to pay graduate school tuition.

In comparison, the poverty line is $22,060 a year for a single individual living in an urban area with a population greater than 500,000, according to 2020 figures from Statistics Canada.

The letter also calls for an increase to postdoctoral fellowships, which are currently at $45,000 per year. The postdoctoral fellowship saw an increase in 2015, but has not kept pace with inflation and rising academic costs. Recipients of the fellowship are generally early-career researchers who may also have young families and other financial responsibilities, the open letter notes.

Prof. Johnson, seen with PhD student Lucas Albano, wants to draw attention to the stagnant scholarships after the government opted not to address the issue in the latest federal budget despite calls from research advocates to do so. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows account for most of the day-to-day labour in university research labs. Without them, “the science would grind to a halt, discovery would grind to a halt,” said Sarah Otto, an evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia who signed the open letter.

Only a fraction of graduate students receive direct federal scholarships, which are awarded through competitions, and are intended to give the most promising young scientists in Canada more independence and financial flexibility to focus on their research.

Prof. Otto said the level of those awards often pales in comparison to what is available elsewhere.

“We’re competing with salaries in the United States where oftentimes students are getting paid closer to $50,000 per year, and that that is over and above tuition,” she said.

Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, which advocates for academic research, said Canada should also be paying close attention to growing research investments by the United States, Britain and Germany after a period of economic upheaval.

“As we move into a post-pandemic environment, we’ve got to re-invest in talent,” he said.

Graduate students, including scholarship winners, can also be supported by funding from the grants won by the professors they work for or through teaching assignments.

But Prof. Otto said supporting students from professors’ grants translates into an overall reduction in how far federal science dollars can be stretched.

John Smol, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen’s University in Kingston and who also signed the open letter, said he is concerned that policy-makers may assume Canadian graduate students have parental support.

Such an assumption would mean that entry-level research work is practical only for students from wealthy backgrounds, he said, and would end the careers of high-achieving students from marginalized communities.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council said in a statement to The Globe and Mail, “we are aware that students are facing increasing financial hardships and that, for many students, the rising cost of living presents a significant barrier to pursuing graduate-level studies.”

The council said it would continue to work with other agencies that support research in medical and social sciences to “explore ways in which we can better support trainees.”

Prof. Johnson said the only way to do so without robbing researchers is to increase funding to the agencies. The open letter calls on the government to remedy the situation for students and postdoctoral fellows without cuts to other programs the agencies support.

Associations that represent students and university researchers supported the open letter.

“Funding is the No. 1 issue” for the students in research, said Ian Wereley, executive director of the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies and a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Christian Fotang, a biology student at the University of Alberta who is chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, said that federal budget numbers reveal that increases to research funding the Trudeau government made after 2015 did not include students.

Prof. Johnson said he hoped the open letter would bring the issue forward, but added that students and their representatives would need to keep the pressure on the federal government to motivate change.

“It really has to be from the students’ voices that this gets heard,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2022