Today I read a paper about "Socioeconomic roots of academic faculty" that was published in Nature (Morgan et al. 2022). As mentioned in the paper and this work, sometimes the disadvantage starts in childhood, in which kids from low-income families have clear differences in opportunities to reach knowledge. Not only that, they do not have enough material to study or don't go to cultural events like kids from rich families. "The scandal of researchers paid less than a living wage" was a recent Nature editorial released last month, in which they discuss that some researchers receive less than what they need to survive. In parallel, I have experienced many situations that agree with the results shown in these works.
Recently, a brilliant friend of mine finished his PhD, and he did not have money to leave the UK and go home: yes, he didn't have the money to pay for the tickets. He doesn't come from a rich family, so they couldn't help him with everything he needed. He stayed in friends' houses for months, waiting until he could have his viva and leave the country. In the end, the professors of the department, his supervisor, the university and other people offered to help him, and he left. This guy is one of the brightest people I've ever met. He was supposed to have enough money to live his life, not depending on other people, but this is not what happens in academia, and whoever is in this life knows the truth.
I've seen brilliant people often leave academia because they needed more money to help their families or because of the instability that is changing jobs every two years. The amount of money that is given to graduate students is not enough to feed a whole family, let's be honest, and it's not seen as 'work' in many countries. They treat you as a 'student' and not a researcher. In Brazil, the scholarship values don't change in many years, and they don't have any rights as workers. Some graduate students don't have money for a good laptop to do their work - which was my case during my PhD. My computer stopped working in the middle of the pandemic, in which I was not allowed to go to the university, which affected my PhD at some point. Also, because my computer is not that good, my codes take ages to run; if my computer was faster, I would be able to do more in less time. The department doesn't give computers, and when I asked for one for some time, there weren't any available. All of this would not be a problem if I were rich. Unfortunately, I also know that I'm not the only one.
How can we talk about a more diverse environment for research if we cut poor people at the beginning of their path because of their basic needs? There are some countries, such as the Netherlands, that treat graduate 'students' as researchers, and they have a contract with payment, access to the health system and other rights. In my opinion, this is the way.
Until everybody sees researchers as students, it's gonna be impossible to change this system. If you don't have basic things to study and the university doesn't give you the support you need, these people will continue leaving. It doesn't make sense to have the "we support diversity in science" speech if this support only includes people from rich families. As shown by Morgan et al. (2022), most professors had their parents' help at some point, which is stronger during the PhD. What if your parents cannot help you enough during your academic life? What are you supposed to do if the university does not offer you enough support?
On the other hand, I know that some professors do what they can, and the "system" I'm always talking about cannot be changed with only a few people. My point here is to raise awareness of this issue: what do you do to support students from low-income families? What can we do to change the way universities see grad researchers?
By the way, while writing this text, I just opened Twitter for a second, and this showed up: "Postdoctoral students and academic researchers". Even postdocs are not seen as researchers by the media.
Anyway, we have a long way to go. Hopefully, in the future, things are going to change, but we must think: what can we do to make positive changes in this sense?