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Opinion Graduate students are the lifeblood of research. They need more support

Mark Lautens is a J.B. Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Toronto.

You may (or may not!) be surprised to learn not all discoveries are necessarily due to deep insight or a well-thought-out hypothesis and experiment designed by a professor.

In fact, many of the most exciting findings are unexpected and rather pleasant surprises discovered while seeking another objective. That is not to say they are a total accident, but rather a more transformative insight or research direction emerges while investigating a well-considered problem.

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Many of these discoveries are made by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who are the lifeblood of nearly all laboratory-research endeavours. More needs to be done to support them. The recent award of a Nobel Prize in Physics to Professor Donna Strickland, for discoveries during her doctoral studies, ably illustrates this point.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Guelph when the chance to work in a research lab came my way. The group I joined consisted of just two coworkers. I was a totally inexperienced second-year student, and at the bench opposite to me was someone doing their MSc. They had a year of experience. Not exactly a formidable team. Yet the daily contact and training I received from my supervisor prepared me to compete for a prestigious doctoral scholarship and join a dynamic research group in an emerging field that did much to help me on my professional journey.

I have found many students who are first in their family to pursue a post-secondary education have no clue and little guidance on the research opportunities and financial support available to them when making key career decisions. Few know that if you do scientific research over the summer, or enter a masters or doctoral program, that you will be provided a modest stipend, potentially with a scholarship. To be paid to learn is tremendously important, particularly for those from less advantaged backgrounds.

These early training opportunities give rise to skills that are needed to undertake our toughest scientific and social challenges. Given this clear value proposition, the case for far more financial support for our graduate students, from our research-granting councils and provincial sources, seems pretty clear-cut.

Back when I was a graduate student, scholarship support was relatively abundant, and the top 25 per cent of students could count on being awarded a scholarship to undertake a postgraduate degree. The current situation is much worse, and the time is right to reverse the trend.

Just a few years ago, only one graduate from our outstanding chemistry doctoral program was able to secure a postdoctoral scholarship. That support from our granting council helped them secure a faculty position at the University of Ottawa, after completing studies at MIT. While financing for scholarships has improved marginally in the past couple of years, the success rate and funds available are not nearly enough.

Support for early-stage doctoral researchers is also in short supply, as are programs that would offer postdoctoral support for outstanding researchers to come to Canada to enhance Canadian STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. The point is not to support very few and pay them a small fortune, but rather to provide sufficient support to a broader cohort, large enough to create critical mass, that will move the needle.

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The federal government added considerable resources in support of fundamental research in Science Budget 2018, and it is reorganizing their “Partnership” programs, which link industry to academia. These worthy goals are set to improve competitiveness for emerging and existing Canadian companies and put us in a better position to create and capitalize on the new technologies.

However, without funding, we will have a hard time realizing our true potential. While it may seem straightforward to link the increased funds for fundamental research to more funds for graduate students, it does not take into account that the typical increase in funding to a given research group will be less than $10,000 per year, less than the cost of a single graduate student. To put costs in perspective, a typical student stipend is $25,000 to $30,000, and from this, they often pay tuition. These are by no means extravagant levels of support.

Funding students offers an alternative, and most importantly, a direct way to support research at institutions of all sizes and to groups at all career stages. It also provides a way to finance a diverse community of scholars, since our graduate community is typically far more diverse than the professoriate. With a wise investment, we will harvest the benefits for decades to come.

It may be hard to comprehend just how hard these young people are working to get ahead and make an impact. Long hours in the laboratory are followed by days analyzing their data to try to tease out clues that will lead them to a deeper understanding of our mind, body or the world around us. Additional hours of work follow, writing up their findings before publishing and presenting to the larger community. Their energy is inspiring and should be rewarded. Capturing the energy and capacity right before our eyes will have a short- and long-term impact.

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