Support Our Scientists: SOS’ fight for the future of Canadian science

Graduate students and postdoc researchers’ pay has remained stagnant for decades. Now one group has taken the fight to Ottawa—and across the country.

Written by Liliana Mason, Opinion Editor
Design by Sofia Stankovic

“I can’t do science if I can’t afford rent and groceries,” one sign read, at the Support Our Science (SOS) national walkout for better researcher pay on May 1 earlier this year. “My pay hasn't increased since the airing of the Friends finale,” another said.

SOS is the grassroots organization leading the fight to change this reality for thousands of graduate and postdoctoral researchers living paycheck to paycheck across Canada.

The national walkout saw tens of thousands of researchers across almost 50 academic institutions take a stand for better pay. Professors and students stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity. SOS’ ongoing movement has involved a series of petitions sent to the House of Commons delineating their most pressing demands. So far, the petitions have been supported by Members of Parliament from the New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party, and the Conservative Party.

SOS was born on May 15, 2022, following an open letter and petition sent to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry François-Philippe Champagne, and the House of Commons, urging them to increase support for Canadian researchers. Since then, they have organized marches, petitions, and social media advocacy campaigns. On Sept. 5, leading members from SOS met with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to discuss the pressing financial issues researchers face. Their mandate is simple: Improve pay for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in Canada.

Growing up in academia—both my parents are biology professors at the University of Toronto—graduate students have always played a significant role in my life. They watched me on days off from elementary school, accompanied my family on trips to conferences around North America, and entertained me at the frequent lab parties my parents threw in our home. Now, as a university student myself, I have felt the effects of the rising costs of living on students firsthand.

SOS has emerged in response to the increasingly dire financial situations faced by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers across Canada over the past two decades. McGill’s Post-Graduate Student Society (PGSS) shared an unreleased survey to The Tribune that revealed the shocking truths about the state of graduate student funding at McGill. Students reported living off of peanut butter and jam sandwiches for multiple meals a day for semesters on end, all while experiencing delays in promised support payments from McGill. These issues add to the prevailing consensus among graduate students that they are valued only for their work—not as people.

For years, Canada has consistently ranked at the bottom among G7 countries for research and development spending, with graduate students bearing the brunt of this deficit. As Kali Heales, a second-year Neuroscience Ph.D. student and Funding and Supervision Commissioner of the PGSS, aptly articulated in an interview with The Tribune, “Everyone wants the cure to cancer, but no one wants to pay for it”.

To tackle the underfunding, SOS has presented the Canadian government with four requests. These will ameliorate the funding allotted to the Tri-Agencies: The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council—the three main organizations responsible for funding research and innovation in Canada.

Ask 1: Increase the value of Tri-Agency graduate scholarships and postdoc fellowships by 53 per cent and index to inflation moving forwards

Since 2003, the values of graduate scholarships, such as CGS-M and PGS-D, have stagnated, while those of postdoctoral fellowships have only marginally increased. In contrast, inflation in Canada has grown by 52 per cent in the last 20 years. In real terms, this means that the graduate students that I played with at my parents’ lab parties when I was a toddler were earning the same salary as the graduate students I drank with at OAP today.

Ask 2: Increase the number of Tri-Agency graduate student scholarships by 50 per cent

Since 2010, the number of graduate scholarships (CGS-M, PGS-D, and CGS-D) offered has either decreased or remained the same across the board. However, graduate school enrolment has increased by around 30 per cent in the same period—and has doubled over the last 20 years. This phenomenon indicates that it’s not just the value of the awards that need to increase, but the sheer number being offered.

Ask 3: Double the number of Tri-Agency postdoctoral fellowships

While the number of doctoral students has doubled, the number of postdoctoral fellowships has decreased by 40 per cent from 2010, underscoring the need for more funding opportunities. Without an increase in fellowships, Canada risks being unable to secure the high-quality researchers that are necessary to continue producing innovative work.

Ask 4: Increase Tri-Agency research grant budgets supporting faculty researchers by at least ten per cent for the next five years.

The majority of graduate students and postdocs are paid through research grants. Individual research grant values, such as the NSERC Discovery Grant, have also remained the same for the last five years, despite 17 per cent economic inflation.

According to Heales, a major problem in tackling the issues is that Canadian graduate students are often left out of conversations on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), although they make up the backbone of the actual research.

“There are thousands of students across the country,” Heales said in an interview with The Tribune. “Who are the workers doing the wet lab work, the bench work, and the computational work to generate data for these really high-impact publications that contribute to the Canadian scientific community and the global scientific community?”

One of the biggest impacts of this is the beginning of a new wave of brain drain in Canada—something SOS is striving to change. A 2016 report found that a quarter of all STEM graduates left Canada for work, citing higher pay elsewhere as a top reason. In fact, the 2019 McGill Trace Report estimated that 38 per cent of newly trained Ph.D. students in humanities, social sciences, and fine arts leave Canada for better opportunities, predominantly to the United States and Europe.

International students are disproportionately affected by the funding system in Canada. According to the PGSS survey, international students normally pay double the tuition fees of out-of-province students, and over four times as much as Québecois students.

Isabela Uquillas, an Ecuadorian Ph.D. student studying computational neuroscience at McGill, earned her undergraduate degree in the United States and her master’s degree in the Netherlands. In an interview with The Tribune, she said “I know how the American system works. I know how the Dutch system works. And here [I] was just like, oh this is broken.”

As the president of the Graduate Student’s Association for Neuroscience (GSAN), the largest graduate student program at McGill, Uquillas sees the best and the worst of the Canadian system.

“We are all very angry,” Uquillas said. “Because this is unsustainable. This hasn’t changed in 20 years[…] Someone’s got to do something.”

An example of the unfairness is the importance of the activities graduate students do—and the cost of these projects. Students working on projects such as cell cultures may work with materials that cost up to $20,000 a day to maintain—much more than what they will take home in a year.

According to Uquillas, international students are already some of the most vulnerable of the affected groups—often more susceptible to predatory behaviour from the institution. Not only do they face higher international fees, but their visas are often tied to having a supervisor. This, she said, can lead to resigning to “Well, what are you going to do, quit?”

“I met international students that are like, ‘Why did I leave my country […] I had a house. I helped my parents pay their rent. I worked a nine to five.’ Why did I do this to myself?” Uquillas said. “When you’re disenfranchised you’re not thinking, ‘how can I fix this.’ You’re thinking ‘I want to see a breakdown.’”

SOS’ four requests look to translate these feelings into concrete demands with significant bargaining power. Graduate students are often under non-worker status, which means their work does not fall under minimum wage requirements. This also means they can not properly unionize or take collective action to bargain for higher wages.

As Uquillas said, “We can tell you a lot about Alzheimer’s […], but we cannot bargain for a fair wage."

Another group often left out of the conversation surrounding funding is individuals with accessibility needs. Tam Pham, a queer, disabled, student of colour at Dalhousie University, emphasizes the struggles faced by disabled graduate students in an interview with The Tribune.

“Sometimes you ask for an accommodation and it gets invalidated because people will say, ‘Oh, this is an inconvenience, I don’t think we can afford this’. So there’s a lot of narratives about […] accommodations requests […] being framed as an inconvenience and not being referred to as a necessity, and a part of our body,” Pham said.

There is also a lack of understanding, Pham said, “because we always think of funding as paying for […] just regular daily life along with bills, but [we also have] our disability aids, our disability taxes […] the regular stuff that I have to pay that not a lot of people would know.”

These extra expenses include everything from medication to wheelchairs to screen-reading accessibility devices for students with visual impairments. “Accessibility is the key to equity,” Pham said. “So if we want to have more folks, more marginalized communities, participating in STEM, we need to make it more accessible. And that’s just the reality of it.”

The issue of accessibility is an age-old question for universities today. As Heales argued, it begs the question: “Are we recruiting the best of the best? Or just the students that are willing to take on that [kind of financial burden]?”

Without adequate funding opportunities for Canadian graduate students, we run the risk of not only losing our brightest minds, but failing to recruit them in the first place. For Canada to remain competitive on the global stage and ensure the well-being of its students, it must follow the requests of SOS to fix the deplorable state of research funding. Only then can we enter into a new and brighter age of academia.