Marie Franquin is a co-president of Science & Policy Exchange.
In 2018, Ottawa brought down an impressive “science budget” for Canada. Most signals indicate that this year’s federal budget will focus on skills – ensuring that learners finish their first degree or diploma ready to go to work. It is important, however, to recognize and support the value of graduate degrees.
As an organization of concerned graduate students and postdoctoral trainees, we also value opportunities to hone the skills required to integrate into the modern workplace. We further believe that investing in support through scholarships and fellowships, for trainees of all disciplines, aligns with Canada’s skills strategy and contributes to building a diverse and knowledge-based economy.
Graduate studies and postdoctoral research lead to surprising places. Dr. Art McDonald, the 2015 Nobel laureate, tracked more than 200 former students and postdoctoral fellows in physics who had been at the renowned Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. He kindly shared with us his findings: 26 per cent had gone on to work at major universities; 31 per cent would work in startups and established companies in the private sector, including industry and finance; 26 per cent did research in major laboratories in the U.S. and Canada; and 15 per cent did administration of government agencies and departments.
These results support the reality that graduate studies and postdoctoral research are a unique training ground that’s not only academic, but also rich in skills-focused experiences, from project management and entrepreneurship to digital literacy and big data analysis. In other words, research-intensive degrees are a vital form of skills-based education.
The efforts to get more support for such studies through scholarships and fellowships have been under way for some time. In 2016, the federal government commissioned the Fundamental Science Review (FSR), which found that the number of scholarships and fellowships provided by Canada’s granting councils has not increased with the number of PhD students and postdoctoral trainees, and that the value of these awards has also been static for many years.
In 2017, the Canadian research community mobilized strongly in support of the FSR’s recommendation to allocate more awards and elevate the levels of funding, just as Science & Policy Exchange worked to achieve by launching the #Students4theReport campaign, sending the clear message that financial support for science is synonymous to support for the next generation of innovators and professionals.
The much-ballyhooed 2018 budget did not address this recommendation. Instead, it offered a promissory note: It committed to perform “further work to determine how to better support students, the next generation of researchers, through scholarships and fellowships.”
That promise is hard to believe, just ahead of the looming 2019 budget. In December, the House of Commons standing committee on finance recommended its 99 spending priorities, and scholarships and fellowships were not included. Perhaps even more troubling is that pre-budget submissions written by graduate students and postdoctoral trainees were not considered by the committee.
In accordance with the government’s commitment, many organizations have advocated for investment in scholarships and fellowships in their 2019 pre-budget submissions. And, based on our open online survey that ran in recent months, more than 1,100 current and recent advanced research trainees from more than 50 universities and institutions also agree.
A staggering 98 per cent identified clear benefits to obtaining support through awards rather than from their supervisors’ research grants. Ninety per cent favoured increasing the number of awards, and 80 per cent supported increasing their value. Eighty-two per cent placed value on increasing awards for outreach and engagement activities, which speaks to a wide recognition that most of us will end up working outside of academia, helping build a more innovative, prosperous and inclusive Canada.
Scholarships and fellowships were also more highly valued by female trainees, who associate these awards with more salary security and personal recognition than their male counterparts. They were also more critical of the current support for family planning, work-life balance and the possibility of carrying out multidisciplinary projects. These concerns about the need for early successes seem justified given the recent release of data that analyzed Canadian Institutes of Health Research grants that show that women face gender bias in appraisals for big research awards later in their careers.
PhD programs and postdoctoral positions equip some of the country’s most academically gifted young people with the skills to fill – or create – the jobs of tomorrow. We call on the federal government of Canada to follow the advice of the Science Review panel, listen to the concerns of the next generation of researchers, direct the federal granting councils to expand and modernize their suite of supports for advanced research trainees, and provide conditional funding for that purpose in the upcoming budget.
In so doing, the government of Canada will help foster the development of a diverse and inclusive pool of talent with powerfully positive impacts in all sectors of the economy.