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Mark Lautens is a professor at the University of Toronto and AstraZeneca Professor of Organic Synthesis.

It is the best of times and the worst of times in the world of research.

On April 28, the federal government announced 11 huge grants supported by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF). The amounts are some of the largest grants in Canadian history, and will support important interdisciplinary initiatives at our institutions of higher learning, from coast to coast.

The $1.4-billion is nothing to sneeze at. We can make a real difference in important domains. Yet just a few days after these historic grants were announced, graduate students across the country were on the streets protesting. Why?

Unlike students working on a classroom-centric, professional master’s degree that focuses on propelling graduates toward specific job opportunities, the graduate students protesting earlier this month were those engaged in full-time research work with our leading scientists and scholars. Without those students, Canadian academic research would come to a grinding halt.

It takes years of hard work to earn a master’s or doctoral degree in a research lab – that’s why graduate students in these positions are paid stipends, to offset their costs of living. However, those stipend levels have not changed in decades. While they were once sufficient for grad students to live modestly in our expensive university cities and towns, after 20 years of rising rent, food and transportation costs, many students are now in dire financial straits.

In effect, we are asking the best minds of the next generation to do a lot of the heavy lifting of science and innovation, seeking creative solutions to big problems we face, while receiving less than a living wage.

The stipends for graduate students are derived from a variety of sources. A fraction of them hold prestigious federal scholarships, but their values vary widely. A Vanier Scholarship pays $50,000, but only around 165 are awarded annually for all fields across the country. More typically, scholarships provide between $22,000 and $35,000 a year, with tuition fees deducted. A post-doc scholarship, for those who have already completed a PhD, is $45,000 – less than half what a young PhD graduate could earn in private industry. Those awarded a federal scholarship are in the minority, and most young researchers are paid directly from research grants, in some instances supplemented by having a teaching assistantship. Alas, research grants have not fared much better than scholarships over the past 35 years.

The starting research grant for a new faculty member today is nearly identical to what I received in 1987: around $35,000. The current average value of a Discovery Grant, supporting fundamental research, is around $40,000 a year at our Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Anyone can do the math and see that grants are insufficient to pay stipends, plus cover the cost of doing research. In fact, nearly half of most federal research grants already go to pay the stipends of the people who work in the lab. If faculty members do the right thing and pay more to these young members of our teams, the Canadian academe would necessarily train far fewer researchers. In a world where knowledge is becoming the leading currency, do we want to head in that direction?

The answer is blindingly obvious. More money must flow into the system. And to maximize the impact of those new funds, we also need more transparency to understand how research-stream graduate students and post-docs are currently funded in different disciplines and institutions.

Are these novel insights? Not at all. Twice now, in 2017 and 2022, the federal government assembled panels of experts from across the country to dive into the problem. The 2017 team, led by former University of Toronto president David Naylor, warned that federal grant-making bodies were in need of clarifying and reworking the system of stipends and awards to graduate students and post-docs. Five years later, Frédéric Bouchard’s panel persuasively argued more funds were needed to support the stipends of our young knowledge creators. And both warned that, without more money for grants and research stipends, we will fall (further) behind.

Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne recently said as much: “It’s clear that if we want to own the podium, we need to do more to support the researchers, the students and the scientists.” Fine words, but where’s the money?

There is a well-worn saying: The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit. Funding young researchers is no different. Governments need to do the right thing – the hard thing – and invest in our long-term future now. That process begins with paying all of our current hard-working students and post-docs a fair living stipend.

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