A Tax That Would Hurt Science's Most Valuable — And Vulnerable

Dec 1, 2017

As the tax bill moves through Congress, an issue has risen that hits dangerously close to U.S. efforts in science.

The problem focuses on a provision that would tax graduate students for tuition waivers that universities set up long ago. These waivers were meant to foster advanced education in the sciences and elsewhere. The change in the tax law would mean graduate students would be hit with whopping tax bills for "income" they never received. For more on the proposed changes and reaction to them go here, here and here.

Today, however, I thought it might be useful to briefly review how graduate education in the U.S. works. This might help to explain why changing the tax code can have profound impacts on science (in what follows I am going focus solely on the sciences).

A student will spend anywhere between five and seven years completing the work for a Ph.D. in the sciences. It begins with a year or so of intensive classes. During this period, students basically give up on the idea of sleep for months at a time to grind through one impossible homework set after another.

After the classwork is completed (and you pass some kind of horrible comprehensive "prelim" exam), you are ready to find a professor to work with. She or he takes you into their research group and together you decide on a problem to work on (i.e. the nature of black holes, the mechanisms of disease propagation, the capacity to make computer chips using light rather than electricity). You work your way through the project, learning new things for yourself and your research community. Eventually, you publish papers in respected journals, finish your dissertation and head out into the world as a newly minted Ph.D.

Now, here is the part many people don't know about. During that entire time, your work will be supported. By that, I mean you will receive a modest stipend. It's not much — 55 percent of students get about $20,000 a year. It's certainly hard to support a family on this. It's absolutely a lot less than you could get using your technical skills in a "regular job." But, none-the-less, you will get support.

Where does that money come from? It comes from grants that professors write to support their research efforts. And where do those grants come from? The U.S. tax payers. That is pretty remarkable. Because Americans are willing to put some of their hard-earned treasure to work on these advanced questions of science and technology, there is money available for graduate students to pursue their studies. That's one of the main reasons why I expect my students to work really, really, really hard.

And they do.

While it is an amazing thing that the U.S. makes funding available for students to pursue their work, the return on that investment is pretty insane. The truth of the matter is graduate students are the engines of America's scientific and technological prowess. In general, we professors guide and aid in the work, but it's the students who do the work. The endless and often fruitless hours babysitting samples, running simulations and tweaking equipment — all of that falls on the graduate students as they push for their results.

And make no mistake — they do get results and those results change the world.

Here are a few examples of things graduate students have discovered or created:

  • As a graduate student, Carol Greider co-discovered telomerase, a key enzyme in cancer and anemia research. She later won the Nobel Prize for the work.
  • Jocyeln Bell Burnell discovered the ultra-dense cores of dead stars called Pulsars as a graduate student. Her work was also the basis of a Nobel Prize (though the award went unfairly just to Bell's supervisors).
  • And let's not forget those two graduate students at Stanford — Larry Page and Sergey Brin — who, in 1996, came up with a better way to search the Internet. They started a company you may have heard of called Google.

Even this short list makes it clear that graduate students give far more back to the U.S. than they get. They work for years under intense pressure with extremely uncertain futures. But they do that work because they are dedicated to it. They are dedicated to what science offers the nation and its people. That's why they deserve something better than a tax slight that puts them under even greater financial pressure than they face today.

If the new provision passes, it will make it even harder to find people willing to be students who must run the gauntlet that is science graduate training. And if that happens, the next Google may well emerge in a nation that understands the true value of young, talented scientists.


Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of the upcoming book Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. His scientific studies are funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Education. You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4

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