Column: Taxing Graduate Students

For the Valley News
Saturday, December 02, 2017

Pursuing a doctoral degree of any kind is a challenging proposition. In addition to course work, professors in the sciences rely on graduate students to perform experiments, distill findings for scientific publications and mentor undergraduates. In return, universities waive the cost of our degree and thesis advisers provide a stipend to cover the necessities of life. This system may not be perfect, but it supports the American economy by helping create new industries and educating highly skilled workers.

The benefit is local, too. Analyses by the nonprofit organizations Research!America and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), show that the federal government supports almost $100 million in yearly research funding at Dartmouth College. That money supports the salaries of thousands of employees here in the Upper Valley, boosting our economy.

Much to my surprise, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act recently passed by the House would place an enormous financial burden on young scientists like me. The tax plan proposes to count tuition waivers as earned income. As a Ph.D. student at Dartmouth, this would triple my taxable income, and increase my yearly taxes by more than $10,000. It could force me to drop out of school, because I would not be able to afford rent and groceries while earning below the poverty line.

There are over 2,000 graduate and professional students at Dartmouth; giving each of us a tax increase of $10,000 would directly remove millions of dollars from the local economy. Due to the increased financial burden of earning a Ph.D., the number of graduate students would likely decrease nationwide, including at Dartmouth College. Therefore, this tax plan would hurt a source of highly-skilled workers for both the local and national economies.

I did not go into science expecting to become rich. In fact, scientists can earn more in private industry at every stage of their career. I wanted to be a scientist because of my beloved grandmother Audrey. No, Audrey was not a scientist. She would like to be remembered as the person who taught me how to fish. When I was in high school, she mysteriously had severe stomach pain and trouble breathing; she ended up in the intensive care unit. After a month in the hospital, we learned that the fluid in her lungs contained cancer cells from her pancreas. She passed away a few days after our last Christmas together. I became a cancer researcher so that others might be spared the trauma of listening to their loved ones drown from the inside out.

I have come to realize it is unlikely I will become an independent academic scientist, despite my excellent academic record. According to a report in Systems Research and Behavioral Science, there is roughly one academic professorship available for every six Ph.D. graduates. Unlike tax cuts, this effect does trickle down: Scientists are being held back in their careers. Over the past 30 years, the number of post-doctoral fellows in the biomedical field alone has tripled to over 40,000 scientists. The average age at which scientists receive their first major grant rose from 38 to 45 between 1980 and 2013, as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I and many of my peers are now pushing aside our passion to solve the world’s greatest problems in favor of less-daunting employment prospects in private industry, consulting or science policy. It will be even harder to become an academic scientist if this tax proposal is adopted.

What is the driving force behind the worsening job market for academic scientists? What could unleash the innovative potential of thousands of scientists waiting to start their own laboratories? One must only look at federal science funding for an answer.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported that the U.S. is ranked ninth in research investment as a percentage of GDP, and China will soon surpass us. Due to inflation, the funding power of the National Institute of Health has decreased by 22 percent between 2003 and 2015, according to FASEB. President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget request includes a further $6 billion (20 percent) cut to the National Institute of Health, but medical research funding is not alone on the chopping block. To its credit, Congress has ignored budget cut requests from the president thus far, but this tax plan constitutes an indirect cut.

We need the government to fund research that will come to define our future. Scientists in the mid-1900s did not realize that their work studying radio waves would lead to Wi-Fi in nearly every home in America. Science funding benefits our economy by creating new technologies and supporting the salaries of thousands of scientists. Nature News reported that every dollar spent by the National Institute of Health generates $2.21 of economic activity within a year. In the Upper Valley, this translates into dozens of small companies started by federally funded research conducted at Dartmouth.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Senate and House tax plans will cost approximately $1.5 trillion over the next decade. Where would our economy be if we invested just a fraction of that cost into research?

For a robust economy, it should as easy as possible for bright individuals to become scientists, doctors, nurses and engineers. Taxing Ph.D. students into poverty will not benefit the economy, particularly here in the Upper Valley. Instead, we should recognize the importance of funding science to advance our economy and re-establish the United States as the global leader in innovation.

Nicholas Warren is a Ph.D. candidate at the Giesel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, studying cancer biology and pharmacology.