CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://chanslabviews.blogspot.com.
By: Maayan Kreitzman
It’s once again scholarship-application season, when we get plied with emails from the Canadian government about funding competitions for graduate school. And, while I’m no longer eligible for graduate student scholarships and am thus freed of feeling bad about failing to get them, I can however, still feel bad. That’s because these awards, and by extension the Canadian public research funding system as a whole, are pretty damn terrible. This blog post will explain why.
Like many others in academia, our lab group and department have been jolted into a conversation about the racist systems of oppression alive in our departments and institutions of late. The Black Lives Matter movement has made it impossible to look away from some of the most egregious and violent examples of racism and oppression in our society, but it has also turned the lens inward to the seemingly progressive spaces where we conduct our scholarship. Due to the initiative of our students society (and a few professors as well), and students within our lab group, we’ve been having more conversations about this topic lately - through monthly lab meetings about anti-racism, through establishing a departmental anti-racism working group, and through the recent proposal for funding from the President’s office for a staff person to analyse racism and inclusion in our department (more on this in a future post). These are welcome developments that have allowed for franker and more challenging discussions to take place about recruitment, retention, and resource allocation than I have previously experienced during my six years here. And, though I and many others have been critical of Canada’s approach to funding research for years, these recent conversations throw an even brighter and less flattering light on the advent of scholarship application season.
The Canadian public system for funding research follows similar logic from bottom to top: Money = prestige and excellence. Large bundles of money = large bundles of prestige and excellence. The funding system is characterized by programs with huge and illogical jumps in funding levels between one tier and the next or between programs, from graduate scholarships which are stratified into three tiers (21k/yr, 35k/yr, and 50k/yr) to research chairmanships which are stratified into several tiers within various programs (100k/yr and 200k/yr for “regular” Canada Research Chairs, 350k/yr and 1 million/yr for “Canada 150 Research Chairs” and up to 1.4 million for “Canada Excellence Research Chairs”). For example, the 2017 announcement of 117.6 million dollars for a new Canada 150 Research Chair program promised to spend five to ten million dollars each on a handful of foreign imports. Again, a “normal” tier 1 Canada Research Chair is worth 200k/year, even though these are themselves extremely prestigious and competitive. The same goes for the Vanier scholarships for PhD students, which are $29 k/year more than a “normal” PhD scholarship.
What is the logic of these massive differences in funding levels? Certainly, few people would dispute that differences in experience, career stage, and impact of contributions justify differences in compensation. And that different research programs have different funding needs for technical reasons. But how large should these differences be, and at what point do they amplify rather than reflect differences? Some will say that brilliant people really are worth more than others, and in order to compete for smart people with other sectors and other countries, funding must be competitive, lest they go elsewhere. Moreover, once you’ve found these rare and brilliant individuals, the more money you throw at them, the more brilliant results you will get. But, is there any evidence to support this theory? As far as graduate students in our department go, people that are allowed to apply for the highest level of funding (Vanier scholarships) through the department have already committed to a supervisor and a program. They aren’t shopping around anymore by the time they apply. This suggests that while the extra money is certainly nice, it is not actually functioning to attract bright students - something else is.
The victims of the research chair and graduate funding programs are not the same. In the case of the highest tier of the Canada Research Chairs program (the “Canada excellence research chairs” - a moniker I can’t seem to type without scare quotes and an eyeroll), the worst outcome is a waste of public money for proportionally small productivity gains as millions are committed to one individual’s salary and research program. In the case of the graduate student program, the issue is not so much money wasted on the highest levels of scholarships (which actually embody a decent living wage), but the fact that the “normal” tier of support results in actual poverty: 21,000 dollar/year PhD stipends, and 17500 per year for MSc students, a truly impossible amount to live on (and even less than recipients of CERB can expect to receive in a year as emergency living income). Take, for example, a student living in Vancouver or Toronto, who might expect to pay $800 for a bedroom in a house with four or more other students as roommates. In Canada, you're considered to live in "housing poverty" if you spend more than 30% of your income on rent. So at $9,600 per year spent on rent, both the PhD and Master's students are in *acute* housing poverty, spending 50% or more of their total income on rent, even with multiple roommates. (And let’s remember, these are the rates paid to students who are competitive enough to win NSCERC/SSHRC scholarships. For those that don’t make the cut, or for international students who don’t qualify, UBC’s baseline PhD funding is $18,000/year, and there is NO guaranteed funding for Master's students). So though their outcomes are different, the steep jumps between levels for both student scholarships and research chairs send a similar message: good people are scarce commodities, and the best people are worth two to 20 times as much as their colleagues.
On top of this stratification, is the fact that government awards are likely to be given to people that already have plenty of experience and awards. This is the literal policy of NSERC granting committees for both graduate scholarships and chairs - if you or your institution have received NSERC funding in the past, you’re more qualified to receive more in the future. This stacking means that the people most likely to receive the added prestige and money are the ones that already have plenty of experience and social capital. Thus, they can stockpile awards and prizes, while others with less experience who might actually benefit more from funding and recognition are not considered competitive. This leads to a calcified “rich get richer'' dynamic which disadvantages people that come from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds or smaller institutions, with all the ramifications thereof on the diversity of people producing research.
The top-heavy hierarchy of funding coupled with the stacking functions of who gets these awards not only fails from an equity perspective, it also fails to actually analyse the optimal distribution of funds from the perspective of outcomes and public benefit. Is the added productivity of giving someone who already has structural advantages extra money more than the added productivity of someone who does not have as good a CV or as much experience getting that money? What about the efficiency of giving large bundles to high-profile research groups (i.e., Canada 150 Chairs) vs spreading it in smaller bundles (i.e., the NSERC discovery grant)? How do these dynamics differ for research funding versus salary funding? What thresholds are reasonable for baseline funding and what are the optimal intervals for signalling meritocratic achievement at various career stages? Should graduate students and junior researchers be treated as actual workers, or as apprentices who get some temporary hard knocks, and are rewarded for it later? These questions, while subjective in part, could actually be answered through analysis of program dollars, dropout rates, research outcomes, and other available data in various fields and at various career stages - analysis which I do not think Canada’s funding agencies have done. They could also be answered without much technocratic analysis simply through an articulation of culture and values that the Canadian public system holds and wishes to promote - for example the values that nobody should live below the poverty line, that talent should be nurtured and retained rather than just attracted externally, and that success and prestige are not signalled chiefly through huge jumps in funding.
Clearly, these are not the values our system currently promotes. Its excessively bundled and hierarchical programs perpetuate a situation where money and prestige are one and the same, wasting money in some cases and depriving individuals and research groups of the modest funding they need to thrive in others. Spending so much on individual researchers that have the extraordinary good luck/ monomania of thriving in the current system in the hopes that Canada nabs one before they win a Nobel prize sends the message that some people need to be exorbitantly bribed to be here while others who choose to stay in the first place must compete over scraps. This value logic perversely wastes money on importing or “competing” with other sectors for talent rather than actually growing, stewarding and retaining talented people that truly want to call Canada home.
A competing theory for how to have good research is that there is no lack of brilliance coming in the door, but there is a lack of stewardship and retention of that talent. There are people who, because they aren’t automatons, become exhausted and disillusioned with the competitive economy of prestige in academia and leave. It is customary to regard these dropouts as failures that perhaps wouldn’t have come to much anyway. But what if they are academia’s most valuable wasted resource? Perhaps altogether even more valuable than all the brains that have drained away to other countries (or chose to remain there) for their higher compensation packages? Even in IRES, a program that has a lot to be proud of in terms of student and faculty diversity, recent discussions in the Anti-Racism Working Group have shed light on the fact that we often experience attrition among First Nations students. Furthermore, while IRES has strong representation in terms of international scholars, we have a comparatively poor track record for attracting and retaining the people who are most dispossessed and marginalized here in Canada: Indigenous and Black North American students. Surely this is not due to any racial or cultural propensity toward failure - rather, it means that there is something about our program, our institution, and/or our funding structures (to say nothing of our society at large) that is not enabling everyone to thrive equally. Perhaps some of these people, as well as many non-marginalized folks, would be happy and productive with a livable wage, a modest amount of research funding that was more spread around and some balance in life.
Canadian public funding should envision and enact a culture of dignity for all (including international students that do not come with wealth), frugality for those who have been over-funded in the past, and recognition for outstanding contributions that is not as closely linked to massive differences in funding. If signalling prestige is important to differentiate people and attract talent, why not do so with much smaller bonuses in funding or by decoupling the two completely? Perhaps the most outstanding students and researchers should get an extra thousand or two dollars as a prize? Or, perhaps they could get a plaque that says “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU WON ACADEMIA”. Some great research is fairly inexpensive; some mediocre research costs a lot. There are real differences in needs and priorities that the allocation of money must reflect. But the size of your paycheck or budget is not the best signifier of quality and achievement, and should not be used as such.
To situate myself in this, I write not from a place of personal bitterness, but rather from an understanding how my privilege has functioned in a system that has been ok for me in a way that isn’t true for many others. The public funding I received, a competitive NSERC fellowship, but at the lowest tier of PhD funding that Canada offers, combined with TAships was about enough to cover my fairly modest needs (i.e., roommates well into my 30s, no kids, shopping second hand) for 5 years of my PhD (the final year was funded through an external grant). But the only way I was comfortable existing on that salary was because I had the cushion of a large savings account courtesy of coming from a family that has money, and more recently because of having a partner who makes significantly more than the median Canadian income. Even though I could technically survive on the funding I received, I also had connections, close nearby family, and a native language that made everything easier. I never had to worry about what would happen in an emergency. If I didn’t have these class privileges to give me peace of mind, graduate school would have been a different, and much more stressful story.
As a public entity, the tri-council system has an enormous responsibility to shape conditions for a healthy academic sector that serves Canadians. It could do so much better.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Jo Fitzgibbons who contributed information about the IRES Anti-racism Working Group's findings, and provided helpful comments and edits, to Anna Santo for helpful comments and edits, and to Kai Chan for discussion and background.