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In my opinion

What’s next for research trainees in Canada after the pandemic?

They are the life force of scientific discovery, yet a disproportionate number of research trainees face a dire financial situation moving forward.

BY FARAH QAISER, SAM GARNETT, SHAWN MCGUIRK, KIMBERLY GIRLING, TINA GRUOSSO, FRANK TELFER, MOLLY SUNG, TEJ HEER & SIVANI BASKARAN | MAY 29 2020

During public-health crises such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, the importance and urgency of scientific research is undeniable. The federal government’s response to the pandemic has emphasized this, with several new investments and initiatives placing science at the forefront of the pandemic response. At the time of writing this op-ed, this includes a $1.1 billion strategy to boost COVID-19 related research efforts, a COVID-19 immunity task force, new mechanisms for improving scientific collaborations and various additional supports for the research community through the federal granting agencies.

While these investments are critical to our COVID-19 response, the impact of COVID-19 on the Canadian research community will be felt long after the pandemic subsides, especially for research trainees, who are predominantly graduate students and postdoctoral fellows living on modest stipends. Research trainees are the life force of scientific discovery in Canada, yet a disproportionate number face a highly precarious financial situation, even if they are fortunate enough to receive additional scholarships and awards.

Short-term relief

Amid COVID-19, new initiatives aiming to support researchers are providing short-term relief to many trainees, specifically to those who currently hold an expiring federal scholarship or fellowship, and some who are supported by federal research grants, are conducting research in COVID-19 priority areas or have the availability to seek full- or part-time work. However, this funding will not reach the entire pool of emerging talent. Trainees receive their stipends through many distinct mechanisms, and many labs that were already financially precarious before the pandemic may not be in a position to offer as much support. There will also be many short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on research trainees that financial support alone cannot address. The question now is: what steps can we take to protect the next generation of scientists and the future of science in Canada?

To help answer this question, the Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN), a student science policy group based at the University of Toronto, recently launched a survey to better understand how graduate students in Canada are being impacted by COVID-19. The survey has over 1,200 responses and includes wide-ranging questions to determine how trainees are adapting to working from home, whether they feel supported under these unprecedented circumstances, and how COVID-19 has impacted their health and wellness, research, funding, teaching and/or course requirements. It also includes questions concerning international students, a group that to date has received limited attention in many federal support programs.

The TSPN survey asks trainees about their current funding sources, and whether they have concerns about personal finances and financial stability in the short and long term. This is a concern which pre-dates COVID-19. In a 2019 survey conducted by the Science & Policy Exchange (SPE), a non-profit organization run by research trainees in Montreal, 47 percent of respondents cited the limited number of awards available as the biggest barrier in the current federal awards ecosystem, and those (66 percent) who received Tri-Council awards reported needing to seek additional funding to support themselves throughout their graduate studies. It is also important to note that the challenges identified by trainees also differed greatly based on their citizenship, gender and socio-economic factors, where a lack of support can amplify certain systemic issues for specific groups.

Barriers to research productivity

In the coming years, it may be even more difficult for trainees disproportionately impacted by disruptions due to COVID-19 to attain these competitive research awards. Many are facing challenges with remote learning, and growing evidence shows that women and individuals belonging to marginalized groups, such as the LGBTQ community, are facing greater barriers to their research productivity during the pandemic. Recently, a survey from over 5,000 early career researchers and doctoral students in the U.K. found that a majority of respondents were concerned about their finances and the pandemic’s negative impact on their data collection, analysis and future plans, despite being happy overall with the support offered by their institutions, supervisors and managers. The TSPN survey aims to better understand these concerns, as this could have significant impacts on the ability of an entire cohort of trainees to continue or complete their graduate studies, and may further impact their prospects for career advancement, especially for those choosing to pursue academia.

Moreover, trainees are particularly vulnerable to the emotional and mental toll of mandated isolation and social distancing. While Canada-specific data is scarce, numerous surveys performed worldwide, in the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere, have identified that graduate trainees are far more likely to experience mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression. While supports do exist, many university clinics and mental health services have significantly reduced their availability as a result of COVID-19. The TSPN survey further aims to identify how the mental health of trainees has been impacted by COVID-19, by asking whether their needs were being met prior to the current circumstances and how this may have changed in recent months.

Plans for the next academic year

Looking forward, the TSPN survey asks trainees about their plans for the next academic year and, for those graduating, whether the pandemic has impacted the next step(s) in their career plan. This is a critical question, especially now that postsecondary institutions are making decisions for re-opening their doors for September 2020; many have already announced that the fall semester will be largely virtual. What has been missing from the conversation, however, is what a return to graduate studies looks like for trainees that physically work in their research labs. To bridge this gap, SPE has recently launched an additional short survey to invite trainees to share how they feel about resuming their research activities.

TSPN and SPE will share results from these two surveys shortly and will identify key opportunities for action to help inform decision-makers at the institutional and federal levels, as they adjust and begin to navigate the post-COVID-19 era. This data will also provide insight into the unique challenges experienced by trainees across Canada and inform which solutions would best support trainees during and after this pandemic. These are unprecedented circumstances, but acting now, rather than later, will be vital in properly supporting the trainees who are at the heart of the Canadian research community.

Farah Qaiser (president, co-founder), Frank Telfer (external communications officer), Molly Sung (co-founder) and Sivani Baskaran (vice-president, co-founder) are members of the Toronto Science Policy Network. Sam Garnett (co-president), Shawn McGuirk (past president) and Tina Gruosso (past president) are members of the Science & Policy Exchange. Kimberly Girling (interim executive director) and Tej Heer (senior research associate) work at Evidence For Democracy.

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