Academics urge feds to boost supports

·3 min read

Citing surging inflation and stipends that have remained frozen for nearly 20 years, Manitoba academics are calling on Ottawa to top-up awards for early-career researchers in science and engineering fields so they can earn a livable wage.

More than 130 local signatories have added their name to the Support Our Science petition.

The national campaign, which hosted a rally on Parliament Hill on Thursday, is lobbying the federal government to increase funding for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars — in particular, scholarships under the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

“We are forcing the best and brightest young scientists to either live below the poverty line, leave Canada to get training in another country where they give a more reasonable level of support, or quit science altogether,” Marc Johnson, a biology professor at the University of Toronto, said.

Johnson called the situation “a huge equity issue” and suggested the future of innovation in Canada is at stake if scholarships do not increase.

Recipients of the prestigious Canada Graduate Scholarship Masters and Postgraduate Scholarship Doctoral receive annual sums of $17,500 and $21,000, respectively. Those allotments, which are intended to cover tuition and cost of living, have not changed since 2003.

The cost of goods and services has increased by roughly 50 per cent during that time, per the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator. Tuition rates have also been on a steady incline.

PhD student Mikala Epp said she typically works between two to five part-time jobs throughout the year, in addition to being a full-time researcher at the University of Manitoba.

“For a lot of students on NSERC or any of the other stipends, it’s just enough to get by,” the 27-year-old said.

“I’ve personally been really lucky in that I’ve had a lot of family support for my education, so I haven’t had to make a lot of tough financial decisions,” Epp said by phone from her summer field site in Newfoundland, where she is studying humpback whale calls.

Baldeep Sidhu, 24, said she is fortunate to be able to live at her family home rent-free while she completes her PhD in chemistry at the U of M. Given her academic workweek spans about 50 hours, on average, Sidhu effectively earns $8 per hour based on her annual research council scholarship sum.

Support Our Science wants Ottawa to increase the scholarship amounts, boost the number of postdoctoral fellowships and the amount distributed to each recipient, and ensure all grants keep pace with inflation.

The organizers have made clear they do not want the number of scholarships to decrease to meet their demands, nor do they want other Tri-Agency funded programs to suffer as a result.

Tri-Agency is an umbrella term that refers to Canada’s three main research funding agencies: the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

“The government’s inaction in supporting the scientific leaders of tomorrow is perpetuating systemic barriers in science and engineering. We hope you agree the situation is no longer acceptable,” an excerpt from the group’s open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and MP François-Philippe Champagne, the federal minister of innovation, science and industry, states.

Laurie Bouchard, a spokesperson for Champagne, said the federal government recognizes “the invaluable contributions that scientists and researchers make to the health, well-being and prosperity of Canadians.”

Since 2016, the government has added 600 new graduate scholarships, doubled the duration of paid parental leave for scholarship and fellowship holders, and raised postdoctoral fellowships by $5,000 per year, Bouchard wrote in an email.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press