Canada's grants for master's, PhD students haven't increased since 2003. These researchers want that changed

Students doing graduate-level research say Canada risks losing its future scientists to other countries because the dollar amounts of annual grants have remained stagnant for nearly 20 years.

Annual stipends of $17,500 to $21,000 are 'definitely below the poverty line,' says grad student

A student in a white lab coat looks through a microscope.
Sarah Laframboise, a PhD student in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa's faculty of medicine, is one of the leaders of the group Support Our Science, which wants the Trudeau government to increase the annual federal grants provided to graduate student researchers. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

Students doing graduate-level research say Canada risks losing its future scientists to other countries because the dollar amounts of annual grants have remained stagnant for nearly 20 years.

A Canada Graduate Scholarship from one of the three federal research funding agencies is $17,500 per year for a master's student or $21,000 per year for a doctoral student. Those amounts have not changed since 2003.

In return for that funding, the recipients are expected to work full-time on their research, and in some cases are explicitly banned from spending more than 10 hours per week on any other paid employment. 

"Definitely below the poverty line in any capacity," said Sarah Laframboise, a PhD student in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa. 

Laframboise is one of the organizers of a campaign called Support Our Science, calling on the Trudeau government to boost graduate student funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. 

WATCH | Research grants to grad students unchanged since 2003:

Grad student funding crunch

6 months ago
Duration 1:55
Annual grants to Canadian graduate researchers haven't increased since 2003

The three federal agencies fund the research of thousands of grad students every year at universities across Canada.

"These students really deserve a living wage," said Laframboise. "They're struggling to pay rent, tuition, all of these costs."

Grants haven't grown with inflation 

Support Our Science has held a rally on Parliament Hill, presented a petition to the House of Commons and prepared a submission for the federal government's budget consultations. 

The Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, François-Philippe Champagne, said he is aware of the call for more funding for graduate researchers. 

"I'm very much seized about that. This is going to be part of our discussions with the minister of finance," Champagne told CBC News earlier in December, adding that students should "stay tuned" for the 2023 budget. 

"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," said Champagne. 

A man at a podium
François-Philippe Champagne, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, told CBC News that the call for more funding for graduate researchers is part of the government's budget discussions. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

He said the Trudeau government has invested in science and research, but Laframboise argues that those investments have not resulted in better annual funding to graduate students. 

Her group wants the government to increase both the value and number of scholarships and fellowships that the three agencies give to graduate researchers. 

"They often spend 40 to 60 hours a week in the lab doing their research," Laframboise said. "So when we look at it from this perspective, these students really deserve a living wage." 

Inflation has eroded the value of the grants. If the $17,500 amount for a master's student researcher had risen with inflation since 2003, it would today be worth $26,140, according to the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator. 

A feeling of 'generalized anxiety'

Jessica Reid, a master's student in fish ecology at Carleton University in Ottawa, says she has had to seek extra funding beyond her NSERC award to support her research and cover her costs.

"I'm one of the fortunate ones," Reid said in an interview. "There's just this feeling of generalized anxiety. Sometimes you are trying to make ends meet, or you're trying to decide between groceries and other things." 

Female graduate students in white lab coats hold signs saying "We deserve a living wage" and "Livable wages."
Scientists and researchers call on the federal government to increase funding for graduate and post-doctoral scholars, during the Support Our Science rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Aug. 11, 2022. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

When she learned that the NSERC grant to a master's student had not changed for nearly 20 years, Reid said she found it shocking. 

"It's quite frustrating to hear that my research and my contributions aren't valued," she said. "You just can't help but feel a bit slighted." 

Both Reid and Laframboise believe their research is important. Laframboise's biochemistry work focuses on cancer, using yeast. 

"Yeast and humans share about 30 per cent of the same genes," she said. "I study a gene that in humans causes cancer, but in yeast we can study this in a much more robust, easy, cheaper way."

Reid is researching the impact of urban development on the fish of the Jock River, which flows into the Rideau River in Ottawa. 

She says the stagnant funding is a factor in Canadian students deciding to leave the country for graduate degrees.

"Feeling like you can't thrive or you just don't have the resources to stay in this field is definitely going to dampen Canada's research ability in the coming years," she said.


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.

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