The US Senate passed its version of the GOP tax bill early Saturday morning, with a 51 to 49 vote almost directly along party lines. Senate leaders had spent the day making last minute concessions to Republican holdouts. Some changes were handwritten, made in the final hours, with critics arguing there was little time for representatives to even read the final version. The Senate will ultimately have to reconcile its version of the bill with the one passed by the House of Representatives last month.
The bill has been criticized for giving disproportionate tax breaks to the extremely wealthy and corporations, for its potential effect on healthcare and education, the likelihood that it will increase the deficit, and other provisions that bolster super-rich Americans at the expense of poor and middle-class Americans.
But the House version of the bill also includes one provision that could hinder the pursuit of science in the US. Key organizations, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have criticized the bill for the measure, which would force graduate students to pay thousands more in taxes annually. In a letter to the House of Representatives, the AAAS argued that these costs could keep many prospective students from continuing their education.
Often, graduate students in the US are granted a stipend each year for research work and their work teaching students, generally between 15,000 and 30,000 dollars, depending on the school and the student. In payment for this work, universities also waive their tuition, which generally totals between 40 and 50,000 each year.
Since the Reagan administration, students have payed taxes on their stipend as if they were making that amount as traditional income. The new Republican tax plan, however, would change this system. Not only would graduate students pay taxes on the stipends they receive for their work, they would also pay taxes on any money they save on tuition. This means that a student who is receiving a 20,000-dollar stipend, and saving 40,000 dollars on tuition, would pay the same taxes as another individual who makes 60,000 dollars annually. For many, it would double or even triple their annual taxes. This would effectively cut the stipends of graduate students, preventing some from continuing their education, and likely forcing international students to go elsewhere for their education.
In effect, the measure would prevent graduate students from earning a living wage for their work, and would dramatically compound their debt burden when they finally finish, assuming they are able to cover basic expenses like food and healthcare during their education. This would likely influence what PhD students choose to do with their education when it is finally complete. Already, PhD students are less likely to go into academia than they had been in recent decades. Academic jobs compare poorly to industry jobs when it comes to salary, and they also have a reputation for being less stable. Increased debt would mean fewer PhDs teaching and innovating at research institutions. This could also have a ripple effect on higher education more broadly, since graduate students are relied on to teach glasses, grade tests and papers, and hold office hours for undergraduate students.
On Friday, graduate students walked out of class in protest, at dozens of college campuses throughout the country.
The version of the bill passed by the Senate on Saturday does not include this provision. But the final version that goes into law will inevitably involve compromises between the two versions of the bills. Congress should avoid any moves that make it harder to be a student in the US, at a time when debt and rising tuition are already keeping students out of higher education. An administration that has come under fire for disregarding science should not put in place a disincentive to enter academia and research.
Graduate student taxes are not the only reason the bill seems a bleak prospect to those who support science. The bill passed by the senate authorizes the sale of leases to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska’s north slope. The bill ends a debate that has persisted in Washington for about 40 years, most of the time that Alaska has existed as a US state. Attaching the move to the tax bill avoided the need for a 60 vote majority, quietly ending the decades-old battle, and opening up land that is home to caribou herds, migratory birds, and already ailing polar bear populations.
As it hashes out a final version of the bill, congress should reconsider both the long and short-term repercussions on the scientific community and on the environment. If they fail to do so, as unlikely as it seems, the Trump administration should stick up for science and refuse to sign the bill into law if it includes these provisions. Politicians and voters who discount the importance of science and environmental protections should consider the long-term impact this would have on our society and economy. The US has enjoyed a position as a world leader in science for decades, but this status is not a given.