On May 1, hundreds of UBC graduate students and postdoctoral researchers (postdocs) participated in a nationwide walkout to call for increased federal funding for their scholarly activities.
The walkout was led by the grassroots organization Support Our Science, which is advocating for more federal funding to support graduate students and postdocs through awards, scholarships and fellowships. The majority of this funding has remained unchanged for two decades.
Shalini Iyer, a PhD student in neuroscience at the Faculty of Medicine, was among the lead organizers of the walkout at UBC.
“For the past 20 years, federal funding for graduate research has remained stagnant, failing to keep up with a 50 per cent increase in inflation,” says Iyer, whose PhD research is focused on understanding the mechanisms behind neurodevelopmental disorders and identifying potential therapies. “This means that graduate students are struggling to afford even the most basic necessities, which not only creates a financial burden, but also has a significant impact on mental health.”
“Inadequate funding has led to a situation where we are losing our best and brightest to countries that offer better opportunities and support.”
Dr. Larissa Kraus
Iyer says that after three years of graduate school, she’s seen a number of her peers take on additional jobs to make ends meet and that some have been forced to leave their field of study due to financial constraints. She adds that funding opportunities need to be more equitable and inclusive to address the barriers that underrepresented groups face in accessing resources.
According to Dr. Larissa Kraus, president of the UBC Postdoctoral Association and a postdoc with the Faculty of Medicine, federal funding shortfalls mean Canada is losing valuable scientific talent.
“Inadequate funding has led to a situation where we are losing our best and brightest to countries that offer better opportunities and support. If Canada is to remain competitive, it is crucial that the government takes action now to provide better financial support to graduate students and postdocs,” says Dr. Kraus, who co-organized the UBC walkout.
The ‘backbone’ of Canadian research and innovation
Federal funding is one of the primary sources of income for graduate students pursing their master’s degree or PhD, and for postdocs who work and train in university research labs following the completion of their PhD.
As a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Dr. Mark Cembrowski at UBC, Dr. Kraus studies human brain cells and is working to uncover new disease mechanisms and therapeutic targets for epilepsy. She says funding for students and early career researchers is critical to support scientific inquiry that will one day lead to future health breakthroughs.
“Graduate students and postdocs are the backbone of academic research, playing a crucial role in generating new scientific knowledge and driving innovation that ultimately benefits Canadians and people around the world,” said Dr. Kraus.
Andrew Thompson, a master’s student in neuroscience within the lab of Dr. Shernaz Bamji at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, joined the walkout to show solidarity with other graduate students and to highlight how important federal funding is for him and his peers.
“Canada has built a reputation as a global leader in research and innovation, playing key roles in the discoveries of insulin, antiretroviral therapy for HIV, and the lipid nanoparticles used in the COVID-19 vaccines to name a few,” says Thompson. “Without making additional investments in the tri-agency funding architecture, Canada risks falling behind other countries that make meaningful investments in their R&D sector and ceding opportunities to build upon its significant scientific accomplishments to date.”
UBC stands with students
In a statement on the day of the walkout, UBC president Dr. Deborah Buszard emphasized how vital graduate students and postdoctoral researchers are to UBC’s mission and joined UBC’s student community in calling for the government to increase funding to ensure graduate education is accessible and affordable.
Dr. Miriam Spering, associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral education at the Faculty of Medicine, was among a number of UBC faculty members and leadership who attended the walkout to show support.
“I wanted to be there to support graduate students and postdocs, and to show them that this is not an area where they’re standing alone,” says Dr. Spering. “As a faculty member and supervisor myself, I cannot imagine a faculty career without the students in my lab who do a tremendous amount of work. These funding decisions have an enormous impact not just on the lives and wellbeing of learners, but on the whole infrastructure and landscape of Canadian universities, research and talent development.”
Ahead of the recent federal budget, UBC recommended the government increase the current award amounts of Canada Graduate Scholarships by 45 per cent, doubling the number of doctoral awards and tripling the number of master’s awards, including dedicated awards for Indigenous students, and indexing awards to inflation.
“Graduate students and postdocs are the lifeblood of research and innovation at UBC, making invaluable contributions to Canada’s economy and the overall health of Canadians.”
Dr. Dermot Kelleher
The Faculty of Medicine has also expanded health and wellness supports for graduate learners in recent years, including hiring an embedded counsellor to offer confidential and private counselling services and implementing a peer mentorship program. Dr. Spering says having a holistic network of supports is important for student wellbeing, but recognizes that there is more work to do.
“We keep hearing from learners that everything pivots around financial support, and this is really something where we need government to come to the table to make a meaningful difference,” says Dr. Spering. “We will continue to work together – as a Faculty and at the university level – to ensure that learners are supported and to advocate for increased support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in Canada.”
For Dr. Dermot Kelleher, vice-president, health, and dean of the Faculty of Medicine at UBC, it’s an important issue that the Faculty and UBC will continue to prioritize.
“Graduate students and postdocs are the lifeblood of research and innovation at UBC, making invaluable contributions to Canada’s economy and the overall health of Canadians,” says Dr. Kelleher.
“These are the researchers of tomorrow who will go on to find cures and treatments for diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and more. Canada cannot afford to leave graduate students and trainees behind. We must support them so they can carry the torch for Canadian science and health research into the future.”