Cracking the Glass Ceiling in Science Funding

by Paalini Sathiyaseelan, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)

“O Canada, how do we better support our leaders of tomorrow?”

As an international student and a fellow early career researcher (ECR), I write this blog while reflecting on my personal experiences with the ongoing financial uncertainties that come packaged with being a graduate student. Six years ago, when I moved to Vancouver — one of Canada’s most expensive cities — I was astounded at the basic cost of living, including the additional costs as an international student such as healthcare and differential tuition fees (which are constantly rising). Yet, what was more surprising is the imbalance in funding opportunities for international students and how the value of these scholarships doesn’t match the cost of living in many cities across Canada. Those fortunate enough to receive an award either through independent funding agencies or through the tri-council agencies (federal awards) still held part-time jobs or supplemented their income with loans to cover the basic cost of living in Vancouver. I was one such person that worked at my lab during weekdays and worked a part-time job during the weekends. Needless to say, the lack of work-life balance reflected in the progress of my graduate studies and the decline of my mental health. This is the story of an international graduate student in Canada. While I endured these tribulations under the assumption that being an international student puts me at a clear disadvantage, I recently learned that many ECRs that belong to marginalized groups and visible minorities face similar ordeals for different reasons.

Before I dive into an in-depth discussion on these challenges, let’s first talk about why Canada should pay more attention to its suffering ECR body.

Today, Canada is on the verge of innovative globalization and in the advent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) productivity. To maintain this growth spurt, Canada needs to ensure a sustained surge in the human capital base of which ECRs are a key-source. A study that interviewed graduates from classes 2015 and 2016 reported that a staggering number of STEM graduates opted to seek employment outside of Canada, notably in the United States. A recurring reason is the better valuation of talent which translated to better salaries. While it is possible to argue that Canada provides an overall better social safety net such as free health care (not applicable to international students), these social benefits are often not enticing to those with significantly higher income and healthcare coverage provided by employers. In 2019, Statistics Canada released a study which showed a surge in international students between 2009 and 2015 (46.1% increase), Yet, only one-third of international students that graduated from post-secondary programs entered the Canadian labour market. The study documented discrimination by Canadian employers, lesser exposure to available job opportunities, and language barriers (English and French) as some of the reasons international students leave. The efflux of talent positions a threat to Canada’s scientific progress.

In 2016, the government of Canada commissioned an advisory panel to review the country’s research ecosystem and funding climate which birthed the heartened Naylor Report. The report, among other things, speaks to Canada’s decline in research output including publications compared to its global peers, and calls attention to

1) the aging scientific community that desperately needs revitalization of young talents,

2) the stagnant growth of federal awards that aren’t on par with inflation, peer nations and applicant pool,

3) the lack of intramural harmonization between the tri-council agencies — CIHR (Canadian Institute of Health Research), NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council), and SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

and 4) multidisciplinary research and marginalized groups, including Indigenous people, young women, and international students that haven’t gotten the appropriate support.

The Naylor report amassed the attention of many advocacy groups such as student-led Science Policy and Exchange (SPE). SPE launched a campaign called Students 4 the Report, which included an open letter to the Prime Minister, signed by ECRs across Canada, showing support for the report. While the 2018 and 2019 Budget made grounding materialization of some of these recommendations, there is still much work to be done. For example, only 60% of the recommended amount was injected into scholarships and fellowships, sub-optimal improvement in post-doctoral fellowship, and no actionable mentions for the harmonization of awards across granting agencies and disciplines.

Following the campaign, SPE launched a nation-wide bilingual survey to ascertain the current perspectives on the funding climate and to amplify the voices of under-represented ECR groups on this topic. The survey, which garnered over 1100 responses, delivered transparency on some of the barriers faced by ECRs with regards to federal awards provided by the Tri-Council Agencies. Below is a structural snapshot of the issues raised by ECRs followed by quotes and comments provided by participants on the issue:

1) The number of awards available is not parallel to the growth of the applicant pool.

More awards is the way to go to enable as many trainees to get the opportunity to train in research labs and propel Canadian science. PIs can supplement, which is feasible. But it’s hard to pay [the] entire salary for all students/postdocs from operating grants (almost impossible these days).”

- Postdoc, University of Toronto

2) The value of awards does not reflect the inflation in tuition fees, cost-of-living, and other expenses across the nation.

“Master’s awards currently do not support the minimal cost of living in major Canadian cities. They should be at least enough to support the student’s living expenses in cities like Toronto and Vancouver with explosive rent pricing. Postdoc fellowships should be competitive with the industry to maintain early researchers on their academic track without personal finances being an issue. These fellowships support our incoming career researchers.”

- Master’s student, University of Toronto

3) The funding opportunities for international students are limited and more competitive.

“[There are] barely any funding opportunities. Renewal of study permits plus CAQ (Quebec Acceptance Certificate) [are] expensive with a grad student stipend. We also pay compulsory health insurance which is over 1000$ per year and is not taken into account while equalizing stipend to that of domestic students.”

- PhD student, McGill University

4) The current review process does not reward a balanced diversity of excellence criteria, such as non-academic achievements and multidisciplinary research.

“I think funding bodies need to take into consideration how much an individual is balancing in order to complete their graduate program and other activities. If they are highly active in a variety of areas this may be an indication of motivation and investment. Unfortunately, the field of research is not created equal and it is difficult to assess so many different people and projects on a universal scale. More opportunities should be available for untraditional research areas as well or projects which may not fit exclusively under one funding body.”

- PhD student, University of Guelph

5) The duration of awards does not reflect the feasibility of completing a project.

“Most important, to me, is to extend the number and duration of awards, particularly for postdoctoral awards. The current 2 years is insufficient for most projects to complete, which makes for a very difficult timeline (including designing study, collecting data, analysis, writing) while also looking/applying for the next job/fellowship and juggling family life.”

- Postdoc, University of British Columbia

The report, which is due to be released on October 21st, 2020 not only sheds light on the systemic flaws of the current funding climate, it also touches on specific issues faced by marginalized groups such as Indigenous researchers. For example, over three-quarters of Indigenous respondents voiced their dissatisfaction with the current review process that doesn’t provide ample emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Consequently, Indigenous research, which involves a decent amount of field and collaborative work, do not get similar funding opportunities as non-Indigenous research. More non-binary and women respondents compared to men, raised the issue on critical absence such as parental leave and other allowed periods of absence not being factored into the duration of an award. The majority of International students urged for parallel funding opportunities as domestic students and re-structuring awards to include benefits such as healthcare coverage. It is evident, from the concerns raised, that we are continuously engaging in next-generation researchers which results in evolving and diverse needs.

Respondents of the survey also petitioned funding agencies to pay attention to non-academic career development such as providing training on communication, leadership skills, promoting community outreach, and impact-orientated activities. This shows that ECRs are conscious of the competitive nature of non-academic job opportunities. In line with the topic of job opportunities, it is important to note that ECRs appreciate the prestigious recognition that is attached to obtaining an award. However, the notorious academia that runs on merits such as publications and awards puts international students and other marginalized groups at a disadvantage. For example, an international student, who has lesser chances of obtaining a federal award due to limited options, has automatically lesser merits compared to domestic competition. Failed comprehensive understanding of systemic funding flaws can perpetuate through their career; potential employers may offer fewer work opportunities under the guise that the international student lacked success in fellowship application, when in fact the student had little personal agency over their limited awards.

The SPE report echoes similar sentiments to the Naylor report with in-depth discussion points on issues faced by EDI-challenged ECR groups. Investing in our ECRs will encourage Canada’s momentum towards a compact Knowledge Economy and flourishing cognitive society, which translates to projected scientific globalization. As an international student and a fellow ECR, I urge that along with the Naylor report, Canada utilizes the SPE-founded report to address the critical issues raised by different EDI groups within the ECR body. Here’s to moving towards a progressive and supportive scientific environment in Canada.

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Science & Policy Exchange

A student-run non-profit that works to foster the student voice in science policy and evidence-informed policy-making in Canada. Based in Montreal.