Canadian graduate students in the sciences took to Parliament Hill on Thursday, pressing their case that the funding system which supports them at levels unchanged in nearly two decades is woefully inadequate.

The protest was the latest effort by student organizations to focus attention on the declining value of federal science scholarships, which are intended to sustain the country’s most promising young researchers throughout their training.

“Today’s goal was visibility,” said Sarah Laframboise, a PhD student in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa who spoke at the event. “A lot of people don’t realize how big this problem is.”

Collectively, graduate students account for most of the scientific output produced by academic research labs across Canada. The highly competitive federal scholarships are doled out to a limited number of students to help cover tuition and living expenses.

For example, two types of graduate awards from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council provide a one-time amount of $17,500 for masters students and $21,000 annually for three years to doctoral students, amounts that have not changed since 2003. Authors of the letter say the amounts now fall below the poverty line for most cities.

The situation is only marginally better for post-doctoral researchers who receive fellowships from the Canadian government. In all categories, the awards are typically won by researchers in their 20s and 30s who may also have young families to support.

During the protest, about 150 participants marched from the University of Ottawa’s campus to Parliament Hill carrying a 70-metre-long printout of an open letter signed by thousands of scientists, including Nobel Prize winners. The letter, which was first made public in May, calls on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Science Minister François-Philippe Champagne to provide researchers with a living wage so they can conduct their research.

Last week, student organizations and their supporters, together with the science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, launched an awareness campaign and website to further highlight the issue. The website includes personal accounts of students describing how they have tried to make ends meet under the current funding scheme, including taking on second jobs and, in one instance, living in a camper van near campus.

“It is powerful and heart-wrenching to read these stories,” said Marc Johnson, a biologist and professor at the University of Toronto who co-authored the letter and also spoke at Thursday’s rally.

Dr. Johnson said that, 10 years ago, he was one of the participants in a mass gathering of scientists on Parliament Hill to protest against cuts to research facilities and the muzzling of federal scientists. Now he said, Canadian science faces a different threat because the cost of entry may be too high for many of the country’s most capable and motivated young researchers.

Science policy experts have argued that the funding disparities for Canadian students, particularly in comparison to the United States, results in a loss of top-performing science students as well as the discoveries and potential economic benefits their work may bring.

John Bergeron, an emeritus professor of medicine at McGill University who frequently writes on the Canadian research ecosystem, said that a greater than fivefold difference in funding per capita between U.S. and Canadian biomedical research agencies “drives young talent away from Canada with devastating consequences.”

There are signs that at least some elected representatives are getting the message.

Earlier this summer, a parliamentary standing committee chaired by Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan issued a report that includes a recommendation to expand the number of scholarships and fellowships to graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, and to increase their amounts by 25 per cent. The report also recommends that the value of science funding, including scholarships and fellowships, be tied to the consumer price index.

What remains to be seen is whether the committee’s recommendations, combined with the public activism of student scientists and research advocates lobbying behind the scenes, will produce a significant change in how Ottawa funds student scientists in next year’s federal budget.

Ms. Laframboise said the campaign has organized a petition to Parliament with enough signatures to trigger a formal response. Meanwhile, another rally has been organized for next Wednesday at Mr. Trudeau’s riding office in Montreal. The event coincides with a joint meeting of the Ecological Society of America and the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, which is expected to draw hundreds of researchers to the city.

The Globe and Mail, August 11, 2022