How the change in grad student taxation will impact everyone in America

We really wish we could be writing about science right now. But this week, we can’t.

By now, you’ve probably heard of — and formed an opinion on — the tax bill that was just passed by House Republicans. Maybe you’ve read about how it scraps the medical expense deduction, lowers corporate tax rates, or eliminates state and local tax deductions. But buried in this bill is a change that is keeping us awake at night, and should alarm anyone who cares the tiniest bit about science.

So instead of describing how scientists record movies of single molecules, or how gene editing could revolutionize our response to famine, it is our imperative to tell you instead about the House’s proposed tax change that will put all of that cutting-edge research in danger. This happens to affect our taxes personally, but we hope to show you that its impact will go far beyond graduate students, devastating one of the foundational pillars of American progress: scientific research.

The provision we’re referring to is a drastic change in the way the federal government taxes graduate students, whose labor drives American biology research. Graduate students in biology spend relatively little of our time (less than 5 hours/week) in classes. We spend the vast majority of our time on laboratory work, which furthers scientific knowledge and makes possible many of the technological advancements you can hear about in the news (think cancer immunotherapy or gene editing). Because we’re technically enrolled at a university, we’re still charged tuition even when we’re not taking any classes.

Giant swaths of the American research labor force will be forced to drop out, and the next generation of graduate researchers will dramatically shrink.

American universities pay student researchers in two ways: a modest stipend (usually $28,000 to $35,000 per year), and a tuition waiver. Together, this amounts to just enough to squeak by for the duration of the five-plus years of study without incurring massive debt. Currently, graduate student researchers pay federal income tax on our stipends: the amount that we actually take home at the end of the day.

Under the new tax proposal, graduate students will be required to pay federal income taxes on tuition waivers — money that never reaches our pockets. By counting tuition waivers as “income,” this plan will massively increase the tax burden on graduate student researchers. Students at UC Berkeley and at Carnegie Mellon University have modeled the financial impact of the bill on graduate students in both private and public institutions. Tax increases range from 33% to 476% (you read that right: four hundred and seventy-six percent), depending on the cost of tuition at the host university. Living as a graduate student in biology, already a tight financial situation, will become virtually impossible without independent wealth. In other words, giant swaths of the American research labor force will be forced to drop out, and the next generation of graduate researchers will dramatically shrink.

Here are the three major ways this provision will hurt not only graduate students, but all of America.

 

1. It will damage America’s global competitiveness.

Currently, America is a global leader in science research. In large part, this is due to our extensive research workforce, of which graduate students are a significant part (more than 600,000 students total). If the House tax plan becomes law, an American PhD will become associated with crippling student loan debt for all but the wealthiest students. Since the cost of foreign PhDs will remain unchanged, America’s top science students — our most talented scientific minds; to an economist, our human capital — will start to leave in droves. Reducing the diversity of the scientific workforce will decrease the quality of the work that we generate.

The blow to American research competitiveness will be devastating. American faculty researchers will have fewer graduate student workers in their labs, and will be incentivized to pursue their research abroad. Whereas now graduate students come to the United States from around the world to do research at top universities, this tax bill will decimate America’s reputation as a research powerhouse and cause the tables to turn. So much for global leadership.

 

2. It will choke modern scientific advancement.

As the world’s most populous developed country, America is arguably the most important hub of modern scientific research. The sheer volume and impact of American research is massive, driving advances in quality of life at home and across the globe. The American research powerhouse has given us cancer immunotherapy, super-resolution microscopy, and the modern revolution in genome editing, to name but a few.

Because U.S. academia accounts for so much of the global research output, diminishing the number of American students who enter science will reduce the amount of scientific research done, at all, on planet Earth. Pursuits essential to the health and advancement of our society will be slowed. With fewer students to power research programs, the development of lifesaving therapeutics and the discovery of sustainable energy sources will all take longer.

Just ask any one of the 14 million cancer patients in the world: slowing down will literally cost lives.

 

3. It will deal a blow to the American dream.

One of the core American ideals is that no matter your means, hard work and talent should be rewarded. While the “American Dream” may not currently be a reality, it is critical — and patriotic — to work towards equal access to education regardless of socioeconomic status. Making graduate degrees in science prohibitively expensive deals a devastating blow to passionate, hard-working students aspiring to a career in academic research. Barring all but the independently wealthy from careers in science and technology is a deep violation of the promise laid out by the Founding Fathers in our Constitution: that all people are endowed with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Making graduate degrees in science prohibitively expensive deals a devastating blow to passionate, hard-working students aspiring to a career in academic research.

So, what can you do about it?

Did reading this upset you? We hope so. The upside is that we live in a democracy. Take advantage of this while it lasts. CALL YOUR REPRESENTATIVE. If you live in one of the states listed below, your GOP Senator is on the Finance Committee, which makes your voice all the more important. But everyone should call — as we saw with health care, it DOES make a difference. Find a helpful call script from the National Humanities Alliance here.

Are you currently a graduate student? Write a blog post like this one! Submit an op-ed piece to a local paper, post on social media, or write an entry for a personal blog. Feel free to contact us (equilibriablog@gmail.com) if you want to discuss further or have any questions.

List of GOP Senators on the Senate Finance Committee:

Utah – Sen. Hatch – (801) 524-4380
Iowa – Sen. Grassley – (515) 288-1145
Idaho – Sen. Crapo – (208) 334-1776
Kansas – Sen. Roberts – (913) 451-9343

Wyoming – Sen. Enzi – (307) 772-2477
Texas – Sen. Cornyn – (512) 469-6034
South Dakota – Sen. Thune – (605) 334-9596
North Carolina – Sen. Burr – (800) 685-8916
Georgia – Sen. Isakson – (770) 661-0999
Ohio – Sen. Portman – (614) 469-6774

Pennsylvania – Sen. Toomey – (717) 782-3951
Nevada – Sen. Heller – (702) 388-6605
South Carolina – Sen. Scott – (803) 771-6112
Louisiana – Sen. Cassidy – (225) 929-7711

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