Pictured: Group of Support Our Science demonstrators with signs gathered in front of Peter MacKinnon Building at USask
Pictured: Group of Support Our Science demonstrators with signs gathered in front of Peter MacKinnon Building at USask

Support Our Science: Collective action to advocate for graduate students

A lot has changed in the past twenty years. Since 2003, ten new Fast and the Furious movies have been released, 42 different iPhone models have been launched, and Tom Brady has won six Super Bowls. One thing that has not changed in the past 20 years is the level of funding provided by federal research grants to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows across Canada.

Despite rising inflation rates of over 53% in the past 20 years, graduate students who’ve earned national scholarships are expected to support themselves on what would be considered less than minimum wage for full-time work. Support Our Science, a student-led grassroots organization is setting out to spread awareness of the financial challenges faced by students and demand change.

Federal research scholarships offered to Master’s and PhD students are distributed through three research organizations: the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), also known as the Tri-Agency organizations.

For the past twenty years, the size of scholarships provided by Tri-Agency organizations has remained stagnant, with Master’s student recipients receiving $17,500 annually while doctoral recipients receive either $21,000 or $35,000 annually.

Federal research scholarships are intended to serve as a stipend to cover graduate students’ living expenses and tuition throughout their time in study; however, with most graduate students expected to devote at least 40-hours a week to conducting research at institutions, this level of funding puts most students below the poverty line.

The low rates of student scholarships in Canada have also contributed to increased brain drain, a phrase coined to describe the emigration highly trained or intelligent individuals from a country. International institutions can offer more competitive funding packages to graduate students, leaving Canadian institutions at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting international students and retaining domestic students.

According to a study conducted by the Ottawa Science Policy Network, 85% of graduate students in Canada have stress about their finances. Student testimonials contributed to Support Our Science’s Faces of Research campaign describe graduate student experiences balancing second jobs with studies, living off food banks and fast food, and even living in vehicles due to financial struggles.

Pictured: Two USask graduate students holding protest signs at the May 1st, 2023 Support Our Science walk-out demonstration
Pictured: Two USask graduate students holding protest signs at the May 1st, 2023 Support Our Science walk-out demonstration

On May 1st, 2023, also known as May Day or International Worker’s Day, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and supportive faculty members walked out of institutions across the country as part of a demonstration coordinated to demand change to federal investments in scholarships, fellowships, and grants for graduate students. Andrea Wishart (PhD), co-founder and current Board of Directors member of Support Our Science helped to coordinate USask’s participation in the walk-out.

Wishart’s student advocacy journey started years ago, while she was pursuing her Master’s degree at Western University. Wishart started by joining student groups, such as the Society of Biology Graduate Students. At the University of Saskatchewan, she joined the Biology Graduate Students Association as Academic Representative and was later elected president. Soon after, she moved into the role of Student Councilor with the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, contributing to making change at a national level.

 

Pictured: Andrea Wishart holding Support Our Science protest sign in front of Parliament Hill
Pictured: Andrea Wishart holding Support Our Science protest sign in front of Parliament Hill

Wishart eventually went on to appear in front of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Science and Research to speak on behalf of graduate students in 2022. “We have fantastic students, but we need to support them, they just need the resources to flourish, essentially,” shared Wishart.

Throughout the process of presenting the report to the House of Commons, the academic community created an open letter to the government demanding change with over 71,000 signatures, including professors, students, fellows of the Royal Society of Canada, and even a Nobel Prize Laureate.

By collaborating with other student advocates with a unified voice, Wishart felt empowered to start a movement of grad students fighting for a livable wage. “We realized if we’re going to spend this much time advocating, we’re including everyone. Every student doing research, doing that labour, building our knowledge base, building our economy, doing that work, deserves a living wage,” said Wishart.

Later that year, the Federal Fall Economic Update ignored the findings outlined in the Standing Committee report and no changes were made to support graduate students.

Pictured: Group of Support Our Science supporters holding protest signs at the May 1st, 2023 walk-out demonstration
Pictured: Group of Support Our Science supporters holding protest signs at the May 1st, 2023 walk-out demonstration

The Support Our Science movement has four specific asks that they are currently advocating for:

  1. Increase the value of Tri-Agency graduate scholarships and postdoctoral fellowships by 53.17%; and index to inflation moving forward.
  2. Increase the number of Tri-Agency graduate student scholarships by 50%.
  3. Increase the number of Tri-Agency postdoctoral fellowships by 100%.
  4. Increase the Tri-Agency research grant budget by at least 10% per year for the next five years, to allow for increased graduate student and postdoctoral pay.

By circulating petitions, contacting decision-makers, and coordinating large-scale demonstrations, such as the National Walk-Out, Support Our Science is working to raise awareness of the unfair treatment of graduate students across the country.

Through collective action and a unified voice, Wishart is confident that change can happen, “This is what other grad students, postdocs, faculty, universities, provinces, and the country needs. We’re lending a voice to that,”. Moving forward, she hopes that graduate students across the country are motivated to fight for change. “Speak up,” said Wishart, “Even if you think someone might have it worse than you, it doesn’t mean that you have to just take it.”

Debby Burshtyn, Dean of the USask College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies speaks to the Standing Committee on Science and Research on June 1st, 2023

On June 1st, 2023, Debby Burshtyn, Dean of the USask College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies and President of the Western Canadian Deans of Graduate Studies addressed the Standing Committee on Science and Research in support of the Support Our Science mandate. "The failure to keep pace with inflation means that [Tri-Agency] scholarships no longer hold the same prestige nationally or internationally," said Burshtyn, “There is a need for the Government of Canada and the funding agencies to recognize how these scholarships set the bar for student stipends,”.

In support of graduate students at USask, the College of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies has redeveloped the way centralized funds are distributed to support graduate students through the Re-Imagined Graduate Funding Project. The changes aim to streamline the funding process and provide a minimum funding guarantee for PhD students. With a simplified centralized funding approach and improvements to awards communications processes, CGPS strives to offer more a more equitable solution for grad students needing to fund their studies.

Learn more about the impacts of the RGF project with CGPS’ newly launched Award Recipients page.

This fall, Support Our Science is organizing Advocacy Week from September 25th to 29th. Support Our Science advocates on behalf of all graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in Canada. This includes all researchers, from science and engineering to social sciences and humanities.

To learn more about Support Our Science and how you can take action to support graduate students in Canada, visit their website.

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