Research assistants are vital – so why is their funding so precarious?

Without increased support, many RAs may choose to leave for other opportunities that provide more job security and benefits, says Bre-Anne Fifield

July 11, 2024
Lab coats on pegs
Source: iStock/Monique Shaw

Academic research was a career that I didn’t know existed until late in my undergraduate degree. After a chance meeting in my third year, I was offered the opportunity to complete an undergraduate thesis. Despite having no real idea of what to expect, I accepted the offer. Within a week, I was hooked on research.

I stayed in the same lab to complete my PhD, and while I had every intention of embarking on the traditional academic career path and completing a postdoctoral fellowship elsewhere, nearly 10 years later, I remain in the same lab as a research associate (RA).

For me, this type of role has always seemed like the perfect fit. As an RA, I get to continue with hands-on bench work doing research I am passionate about and maintain a level of independence in advancing our research questions within the framework of our larger research programme – all without shouldering the full responsibility of running my own lab.

RAs are critical for research programmes, providing much-needed day-to-day support for principal investigators in running their labs. We provide continuity to the research programmes students cycle through on a continuous basis and take on significant responsibility for training new undergraduate and postgraduate students, providing daily support in not only hands-on techniques but also in the development of project goals and the drafting of papers. RAs are often involved in grant writing, and importantly, in ensuring that projects stay on track and yield the data required to support grant applications and publications.

In addition, RAs often provide support to their wider departments and faculties. Many acquire considerable knowledge and skills in the use of specialised equipment, becoming responsible for running critical infrastructure and training new users. In shared lab environments, RAs may also be relied on to keep up to date with regulatory paperwork, such as biosafety protocols and standard operating procedures for the entire lab space providing support for multiple labs.

Despite the critical role RAs play, it is very rare for universities or research institutions to support RA positions financially. Even those that have unionised positions may still require PIs to fund them – including any mandated pay rises – out of their own grants. Inevitably, this leads to a lack of stability. I have been fortunate to have remained in my role for nearly 10 years now, but I am all too aware of the tenuous nature of my position.

In Canada, as in many other countries, research funding has remained stagnant in recent years, leaving many promising proposals unfunded and many existing projects unable to continue. For labs, loss of funding means loss of the ability to support an RA salary – which has profound consequences for their wider research environment. Recently, calls to the government to increase funding and provide additional support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have increased – but staff scientists, technicians and RAs have been left out of these calls despite the historical underfunding of their positions and the critical role they play in driving research forward.

Without increased support, many RAs may choose to leave for other opportunities that provide more job security and benefits – taking with them all their specialised knowledge, acquired over many years. The next generation of scientists will hesitate before committing their futures to a career path that remains insecure throughout their whole careers.

To retain and attract the next generation of scientists to these types of positions, we need to find better ways to support RA positions. Are there ways to build that support into current funding infrastructure? Can institutions take on more of the burden, particularly for those who provide support for critical infrastructure?

It is a privilege to get to do the work I do, and I cannot imagine working in another area. The lack of support I feel comes not from my PI but rather from the system. In the absence of answers to the above questions, what I grapple with is how long a person can remain in a career that so clearly lacks the proper support. The value of RA positions cannot be understated. We need solutions to increase support for all who make research possible.

Bre-Anne Fifield is a research associate and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Windsor, Canada.

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Reader's comments (3)

Please tell us, specifically: what jobs and where will RAs go for pay IF they leave universities?
Whilst I do sympathise, there aren't many jobs in the HE sector that aren't rewarded better outside of it. I guess we choose to stay as we love what we do and have to accept that this comes at a price.
Having tried to support one of our most experienced senior RA for almost a decade, often through one year contracts and fractional funding on parallel grants, I fully appreciate the scale of the problem also from the PI's perspective. When academic positions open up often the internal candidates are overlooked and undervalued.