Simon Fraser University
In these days of fiscal restraint it is common for some politicians to argue that university research needs to share the pain. Why, they ask, should we spend money just to satisfy the whims and curiosity of academics for concepts that have no immediate purpose? That can wait until some future time when the economy is stronger.
Scientists and engineers often push back by showing the many ways curiosity driven research has benefitted the world over the long term, and exposing the very real dangers of neglecting scientific study. Yet it is also important to ask the question back to those urging cutting research funds: “Where do you think that money is spent?” What most people do not recognize is that in many fields almost all those research grant funds are spent supporting graduate students, our next generation of researchers and high tech entrepreneurs.
With today’s high cost of living and tuition fees these students have accumulated huge debts by the end of their undergraduate degree. Financial support from the researcher running a lab is the only way for many to continue their education. Most of this funding comes directly from the grants supporting this research. Surveys show that 80-95% of the funding for the basic physical sciences provided to professors by the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) goes directly to paying the young women and men working in the laboratories doing this research. Yes, in some provinces the government gives part of the money to support those students, but still the fraction spent from research grants remains the same; it only enables more students to be supported. Graduate school is really an “earn while you learn” program. The students use this to pay their tuition, rent, and to put food on the table. They are dedicated to gaining new knowledge – they could get more money by working at McDonalds.
In exchange for this modest support these grads devote their time to better understanding their fields by applying their knowledge. They are the foot soldiers of research – the ones that storm the battlements of our ignorance in any area. The professor gives this support because they need smart people who can help build their lab equipment, run those experiments to get new data, and then work with them analyzing and understanding the puzzling results. In turn they guide the graduates to learn how to design their own experiments, see the process of going from curious results to understanding the science that explains it, and, when things go best, get the student to use this data to develop an idea that the researcher would never have conceived on their own.
Each cut in funds means researchers can support fewer graduate students in their training. It damages the knowledge advancement on which every modern country depends by removing the support enabling those students to learn how to become the future advanced scientists and engineers. The skills they gain become the foundation of the knowledge economy in high tech industries. With these cuts you are refusing to plant the seeds that will grow to become the new crop of people who create advances on which our country depends. As history tells us, societies that fail to nurture the young start declining. So when some politician says we cannot afford research today, remember it means your sons and daughters are going to lose out on their chance at becoming researchers and maybe become the next person whose ideas change the world.