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The Tax Overhaul Could Cripple the U.S. as a Leader in Science

Prominent climate researcher Ken Caldeira says the House tax bill would prevent many graduate students from pursuing advanced degrees and carrying out critical research.
December 11, 2017

Update: The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have now reported that legislators have removed the provision of the tax bill affecting graduate student tuition waivers.

The graduate education system in the United States is rightly considered the best in the world. But Republicans in the House of Representatives have passed a bill that would undermine America’s great universities and the nation’s preeminence in scientific research, submitting to the self-serving interests of their wealthy donors (see “Stop Emissions”).

One provision of the lower chamber’s tax overhaul, which now must be reconciled with the Senate’s short-sighted measure approved last week, would seize money from struggling graduate students and hand it to the nation’s richest 1 percent. It would prevent many students from pursuing advanced degrees and engaging in the critical research that drives our nation’s long-term economic growth.

Graduate students at Stanford, where I am a professor by courtesy, earn approximately $40,000 per year. But graduate tuition fees at the university can exceed $16,000 per quarter, adding up to more than $64,000 per year if students take on a full course load through the year. These fees are typically waived for students who are doing grant-supported work in scientific or engineering fields.

The Republican plan is to tax these tuition fees as if they were normal, take-home income. Graduate students would have to pay income tax as if they made over $100,000 per year instead of $40,000. This would make it impossible to live in the expensive San Francisco Bay Area for many, and it would knock down the financial foundations of graduate education in the United States. It would cripple the nation as a world leader in science and technology.

Many people misunderstand the role of graduate students at elite research universities. One of the primary goals of such institutions is to produce high-impact research results. University professors get grants to conduct such studies, and their graduate students and postdocs supply the labor that actually executes most of this contracted work.

Oscar Bolton Green

The students gain an education. The university generates research. And the world benefits from both.

Indeed, Stanford has been instrumental in fostering and sustaining innovation in Silicon Valley, one of the most vibrant economic environments the world has ever known. Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s PhD dissertation work at Stanford formed the basis of Google, which now employs more than 70,000 people. Other university spinouts include Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo, among many other companies driving innovations in law, medicine, and clean energy (see “A Material That Throws Heat into Space Could Soon Reinvent Air-Conditioning”). In 2016 alone, Stanford filed 289 patents and signed 141 license agreements, including licenses to 32 companies based “primarily on Stanford technology,” according to the Office of Technology Licensing’s annual report

Before I went to graduate school, I worked for a software firm in New York City. They sent me to sales training so that I might be better positioned to market our services.

Should the cost of that sales training have been regarded as taxable income for me? Clearly not. Training of workers should be regarded as an expense to the employer, to whom the benefits accrue. And the same should go for colleges.

The American university system is a national treasure and an economic engine. It is simply disgusting that politicians would jeopardize it to satisfy the immediate interests of the rich and their own hunger for power.

The best we can hope for now is that this deeply misguided measure is killed during reconciliation with the Senate version of the bill. But it’s little comfort that we’re relying on the deliberative wisdom of Senate Republicans, who packed their own bill with giveaways to the ultra-wealthy, to rein in the worst tendencies of their House colleagues.

Higher taxes should fall on the rich who have already benefited the most from America’s technological ascendancy, not young, cash-strapped students. Long-term economic growth depends on helping people like Google’s Brin and Page to study and work in America’s great universities.

Congress should do everything it can to support highly motivated, brilliant, and creative young students with the resources they need to create the new technologies that improve our lives and the new companies that improve our economy.

Ken Caldeira is a senior scientist in the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science and a professor by courtesy in the Stanford University Department of Earth System Science.

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