The ASBMB has released the first episode of “Pipettes and Politics,” a science policy podcast hosted by the society’s public affairs department. This podcast will provide a peek into the politics of the Beltway and how they may affect the research enterprise. Listeners can expect to hear candid conversations between ASBMB’s public affairs staffers as they unpack topics ranging from new legislation in Congress to policies at federal agencies and policies issues within the research community.
In their first episode, they discuss how tax reform efforts being debated in Congress could affect young researchers.
Stay tuned for future episodes.
If you have any suggestions, please tweet at us using #pipettesandpolitcs or send us an email at email@example.com.
BENJAMIN CORB: Hello and thank you for joining Pipettes and Politics, a science policy podcast being brought to you by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
You’re joined by our three hosts. My name is Benjamin Corb. I’m the public affairs director for ASBMB.
ANDRÉ PORTER: Hi, I’m André Porter. I’m the science policy analyst for ASBMB.
DANIEL PHAM: Hey, everyone. I’m Daniel Pham, the public affairs manager at ASBMB.
BENJAMIN CORB: And I think the purpose for doing this podcast was … We have conversations in our offices on a daily basis talking about what’s happening in Washington, the impact it’s gonna have on science, and I think it’s nice to let you all inside … hear the discussions that we have, hear our feedback, hear our analysis, and really kind of pull the curtain back and let you know what happens in Washington.
So, this is gonna be a new thing. We’re gonna test it out today, and hopefully there’s gonna be more episodes and more interaction going forward. If you have questions or feedback, you can tweet us. I am @bwcorb. André is …
ANDRÉ PORTER: I’m @anporter_
DANIEL PHAM: And I’m @dpham20
BENJAMIN CORB: First, before we jump into today’s topic, which is going to be discussing tax reform policy and the impact that it may have on graduate students and higher education, we wanted to give you a little bit of feedback about who we are … Kind of connect with the audience and give you a sense as to who the disembodied voices coming through your radio are right now.
So, I’ll start. Again, I’m Ben. I am not a scientist, I should warn you. I studied political scientist, which makes me a scientist in the way that Dr. Seuss is a doctor, but I’ve been doing science advocacy for more than a decade now. Started doing science advocacy in the aerospace and aeronautical community, went to biomedical engineering, and now doing it here for biochemistry and the basic life sciences.
I find it interesting. I find it rewarding. I think the work you all do, provided you’re a scientist that’s listening, is really amazing and interesting stuff. It makes it easy for me to go to Capitol Hill or talk to the administration about the importance of the research that you all are doing in helping to save lives.
André, why don’t you give us a little bit of a sense as to your background and how you got here.
ANDRÉ PORTER: Sure. So, my background … My training is in biology. My masters is in behavioral genetics. I’ve spent almost a decade in the federal government. I worked initially at the Environmental Protection Agency. I worked on STEM education programs. Then I transitioned to the National Science Foundation, continued working on graduate programs in STEM education, working on capacity issues, diversity, and things of the like.
Essentially my interest here and my interest in STEM is increasing diversity, making sure that we have a strong work force, making sure that the environment is conducive to good research and good researchers. And that’s why I’m here. That’s why I work in science policy, ’cause I wanna make sure that we are putting forth the best policies possible to make sure America’s number one.
BENJAMIN CORB: Now the third member of our team is our recovering scientist, Daniel Pham. Daniel, why don’t you tell us how you got here.
DANIEL PHAM: Hey, everybody. I’m Daniel Pham. I recently graduated from Hopkins with a PhD in neuroscience, so yes, I am in fact still recovering from all those pipetting days.
I started doing some advocacy work at UCLA. I’ve always been interested in community. I realized how important communities were, and now that I’m here, I’ve always been interested in going back and giving back. So, I did a lot of advocacy with the Vietnamese community and also the LGBT community, so it was natural when I was in science to start advocating for the science community.
I’ve been interesting in empowering scientists and also learning myself how to advocate for what we need to be successful in science while in grad school. So, after I graduated I did a short fellowship at Research America that gave me more tools to do what I wanted to do, and that was the perfect launchpad for me at my current job.
BENJAMIN CORB: Great. So, you’ve heard a little bit about who we are. Like I said, this is the first episode of many where we’re gonna dive into some topics.
We’re gonna take a little break right now. On the other side of this break, we’re gonna come back and we’re gonna be talking about how proposed tax reform bills that exist today might impact you … Might impact science down the road, so thank you for joining us and stick around.
COMFORT DORN: Like this, but want more? Why not visit the ASBMB policy blog, where you’ll see news and analysis on all things Washington. Visit www.policiy.asmbm.org.
BENJAMIN CORB: Alright, hey. Thank you for sticking around. As a reminder, this is Pipettes and Politics. I’m Ben, this is André.
ANDRÉ PORTER: Yes.
BENJAMIN CORB: That’s Daniel.
DANIEL PHAM: What’s up.
BENJAMIN CORB: We’re still here. What we wanted to talk a little bit about today was tax reform efforts, which is obviously not an issue that a scientific society often has very strong opinions on, but there are implications and kind of ripples from the impact that this legislation can have, and so we wanted to discuss them, try to frame them in way that might be interesting, in showing how they impact you.
So, first we’re gonna go into kind of the macroeconomics of the deal. The tax cuts are across the board. There are changes to the tax brackets, there are changes to corporate tax levels, there are changes to deductions and what you can deduct and what you can’t deduct. If you’re a home owner, I’m sorry, I’m not gonna talk to you about the mortgage interest rate deduction thing right now. If you’re a business owner, I know nothing about corporate tax rates. But we are gonna talk a little bit about the macro impact.
Studies have shown and analysis has identified that these taxes … these cuts in taxes will lead to about a 1.5 trillion dollar deficit over the next 10 years. Which is to say, they’re not paid for. There is not a comparative or complimentary reduction in spending. There is only now a reduction in the amount of income … in the amount of money the government is taking in. That’s of concern, I think, when you look historically. Sometimes when people see massive deficits, they look to programs to cut, and the programs they look to cut aren’t necessarily defense programs, but they’re non-defense programs, and guess what? Federal science is non-defense.
André, I’m wondering … historically, this isn’t the first time that tax reform efforts have started. This isn’t the first time that there have been tax cuts that weren’t necessarily paid for. Do we have kind of a historical narrative that we can draw and that can give us a sense as to what … if these cuts were to pass, what that impact might be?
ANDRÉ PORTER: Yeah, I think so. So, as a quick background. The first education tax credit started in the 50s. And since the 50s there’s been different forms of tax credits focusing on different populations, but if we go back to the Obama administration, for instance, they had a tax cut that also was somewhat paid for, but it did impact the deficit and also increase the deficit. The Bush administration notoriously put through a number of tax credits that weren’t paid for, and they also had a war.
I think the big difference when we’re looking at the tax cut here is that most of the credits that are being phased out impact the everyman, impact education, impact institutions. The Bush tax cut, to it’s credit, even though it’s not paid for … at least tried to … the first one in 2001 tried to lift up the middle class and provide some additional support for education.
However, because it wasn’t paid for, as some of the analysis has said, the Bush tax cuts today account for a third of the federal deficit. So, there is some precedent for creating these … decreasing credits and creating these cuts that don’t really benefit the economy and then eventually create this monster that we have to deal with down the line.
BENJAMIN CORB: And now, again, that wasn’t the plan. Right? When you passed these tax cuts … the “Bush era tax cuts” … The first wave started in 2001, the second wave was in 2003. They weren’t sold as a tax cut that’s going to not impact the economy, right?
If I remember correctly, the first Bush era tax cut was “everybody’s getting a check,” right? Every single American was gonna get a check in the mail. I remember I got mine. Daniel was a baby. He may not have gotten his.
ANDRÉ PORTER: I’m younger than Daniel, so … [crosstalk 00:08:58]
BENJAMIN CORB: So, I’m the only one who got a check, okay. And I was supposed to use that to get an 8-track or cassette player or whatever the technology at the time was. But what happened was most Americans took that money and either paid down a credit card.
ANDRÉ PORTER: Or they saved it.
BENJAMIN CORB: Or they put that money in a savings account, right? That money didn’t go into the economy in the way it was intended to go to. So keep that in mind, because the analysis today of this tax cut is, taxes … a reduction in corporate taxes will lead to a reinvestment in corporate dollars into the economy, into infrastructure, into corporate upgrades, into salaries for employees, and that may be the case. In an ideal world, that may be the way it comes out, but historically we don’t exactly have a trendline that shows that. So that’s something that we should be concerned about. Right, André?
ANDRÉ PORTER: I think 100 percent that’s something we should be concerned about, because of this whole “egg before the chicken” situation where you’re giving people money and expecting something to materialize out of it that there’s no real … two third of us have a science background … there’s no real data that really exists that shows that if you do this, this will come out of it. There are models that exist. I think the Laffer Model is one of the models that talks about providing cuts upfront and then how it’s gonna create a windfall of economy and economic energy. However, it’s not realistic … or it hasn’t been shown to be realistic in a real world …
BENJAMIN CORB: Well, we’re still waiting for the trickle-down economics from the 80s to … You guys, again, won’t remember that. We’re still waiting for that to come into effect.
We’re gonna jump into now … We’re gonna take a little bit of turn to some of the specific. Now, Daniel, we’re gonna talk a little bit about imagining you’re a graduate student. So one of the proposals in this tax reform bill is to take the tuition, which the universities currently … you have a waiver. I believe it’s the 1 …
DANIEL PHAM: The 1-17 section D.
BENJAMIN CORB: Okay, so the 1-17 section D waiver, which allows you to not include tuition as a taxable income in your daily basis. In the house version that’s being debated right now, they repeal that waiver. From what I understand in the Senate version, they do not repeal that waiver. So, that’s gonna impact the direction that things go, but we should really take this seriously because the house may consider it, and we may go to conference and have to figure out what’s going on here.
So, Daniel, why don’t you explain to me what that waiver means, and what the dollars and cents of it might be.
DANIEL PHAM: Yeah, sure. So, as a grad student, my stipend was around $28,000 a year, so let’s just round it up to $30,000 dollars a year.
BENJAMIN CORB: Have you filed your taxes properly in the past couple years? I don’t want you to get in trouble.
DANIEL PHAM: I have. Yes. I’m pretty sure it’s legit.
So, Hopkins tuition this year was 52,000 dollars. So, instead of being liable for 30,000 dollars, this new Republican plan would make me liable for $82,000, therefore my tax … the amount of taxes I owe is, instead of 3,000 dollars, there’s actually gonna be almost 10,000 dollars. So, if we actually do the math, I actually would have to have almost 500 dollars less per month to spend on living, essentially. And looking back, I was making about 1800 dollars a month, and with the new tax plan, I would only make 1200 dollars … 1300 dollars a month. That means I can only spend about 20 dollars a day on things if my rent were 700 dollars a month.
However, I was one of the lucky ones because my tuition … my stipend was actually higher than a number of schools. So people … certain grad programs only pay around 15-to-20,000 dollars a year, so imagine getting paid that much, and also living in a city like San Francisco, LA, New York, Miami … anywhere that’s not Baltimore. I don’t know how I could live … So, yeah this would definitely affect my decision to go into grad school in the first place, and I think it would also really cut down on the diversity of grad students, which is already a problem. I mean, we’re gonna lose out on economic diversity, culture and racial diversity … We didn’t come from money and my parents wouldn’t have had any money to cover any tuition. I think this plan as it stands would be detrimental to the science community.
BENJAMIN CORB: Let’s jump into it just a little bit. So, first-off, we should recognize that Johns Hopkins University is not cheap, but is probably on the higher end in terms of tuition costs. So, if you’re listening to this, you may be going … You may be a graduate student at a university where you don’t have as many credit hours … your tuition is not as expensive, so the impact to you may not be as hard as it would be to Daniel if he were still in the lab, and thank goodness we’ve rescued you from the lab.
But for some … for other students, this is obviously something that’s gonna have an impact, so, as a society that … and over the past year we’ve been really proud of the fact that we represent science largely but also recognize that science is made up of individual scientists, and you all make it happen, and the graduate students are the next generation and the next wave of who the scientists are gonna be. There may be impacts to all of this. And those impacts may be changed. They may not be quite as drastic as they are.
But let’s jump in a little bit. So, let’s take the worst-case example. So, you’re not Daniel, but your Daniel’s twin, Randall, at Johns Hopkins University.
ANDRÉ PORTER: Hi, Randall.
BENJAMIN CORB: Hi, Randall.
DANIEL PHAM: How’s it going?
BENJAMIN CORB: So, you now are making … Your stipend makes it almost impossible for you to live, right? And so now the whole … And that is happening across the scientific enterprise everywhere. So we need to make a course correction, right? We either need to reduce tuition …
DANIEL PHAM: Right.
BENJAMIN CORB: … which …
DANIEL PHAM: … probably won’t happen.
BENJAMIN CORB: Pretty difficult.
DANIEL PHAM: Yeah.
BENJAMIN CORB: Pretty difficult. We could have podcast after podcast about why tuition rates are not gonna drop in this country. Or, the other side of it is is that your salary’s gonna have to go … the stipend that you’re gonna get it gonna have to go up.
DANIEL PHAM: Which probably won’t happen either.
BENJAMIN CORB: Right. But let’s pretend like it does.
DANIEL PHAM: Yes.
BENJAMIN CORB: Let’s pretend like the government now … or the research community doubles the stipend of graduate students. Where’s that money coming from?
DANIEL PHAM: It would come from …
ANDRÉ PORTER: The research budget.
DANIEL PHAM: … research. Yeah. We would lose the number of grad students we can admit … Cut down on grants and scholarships.
ANDRÉ PORTER: Post-docs … Cut down on research being conducted. If the students are supported by the school solely, it’s cutting down on endowments, it’s cutting down on provost’s funds, it’s cutting down on funds to keep the lights on, keep the buildings running, it … It’s a big impact.
BENJAMIN CORB: So, in order for … So, the end result of a tax change like this is either one of two things. Either, one, it’s disincentive. There will be fewer graduate students who go down this pathway because the economics are just so terrible. You’re not bringing home 82,000 dollars; you’re bringing home 30,000 dollars, but you’re paying tax on 80 … 80,000 dollars.
DANIEL PHAM: Right.
BENJAMIN CORB: That’s unfair. So people are maybe gonna go the other way. The alternative is stipends go up, but that means the cost of research goes up. So, in an environment that we’re living in now in which advocates like the three people around the table are fighting tooth and nail to get more dollars into research, those dollars are getting automatically eaten up just to kinda increase … André is brushing his beard here. I don’t think he agrees with me.
ANDRÉ PORTER: No, I agree with you. 100 percent. I have a very controversial take that I won’t say.
BENJAMIN CORB: Say it.
ANDRÉ PORTER: So, we talk about pipeline issues. We talk about bloated pipeline issues. Part of the discussion a couple months ago was dealing with capping funds for researchers, dealing with post-doc money going up and how it will affect research budgets. If graduate student money goes up, it’s gonna affect research budgets, but it’s also gonna cause less students to go intro grad school, which is one of the issues that we have right now. We have less graduate students being trained … So, we have graduate students being trained to be researchers, being PIs, being faculty … Because budgets are so big, and because we had the Obama tax credit that created this huge windfall of money instead of research enterprise, we kinda had an over proliferation of post-docs and graduate students.
The positive side that somebody could come out of this and say, “Well, we have less grad students. Hey, we corrected the ship. We’re not gonna crash. We don’t have this proliferation of students.”
BENJAMIN CORB: Ladies and gentlemen, that’s aporter [crosstalk 00:17:39] dot organization. Look, these are the … the reason for having this discussion and starting this podcast is so that we can kind of dive into and think about and talk about what is essentially a topic that a scientific society like ASBMB would never really get involved in, which is tax reform … How the downstream effects and maybe unintended consequences might be.
One consequence might be people run from science. Another consequence might be science costs more. The other consequence might be only the really dedicated that can afford to do it continue in science, and you kind of end up maybe relieving some of the pressure on the pipeline, is what you’re trying to say
ANDRÉ PORTER: Yeah. But to Daniel’s point … Or Randall’s point.
DANIEL PHAM: That was Daniel speaking.
ANDRÉ PORTER: That was Daniel speaking, okay. It may also create a big … a huger diversity issue than we already have because, to your point, the people who can afford to be in that type of a tight situation, or that type of a lopsided situation where you’re not bringing home as much as you should be bringing home … They can afford to be a part of that ’cause they have a support system with their family, support system with their community that helps them kind of take the punches of not making a lot of money as a post-doc or grad student.
BENJAMIN CORB: I think what we’re identifying as we talk through this is, there are so many threads you pull on on a really complex issue like this, and I’m willing to assume … and, look, I assume that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are doing what they think is best. I really do. I don’t kind of bring in that people are political hacks and are just kinda doing it for self-interest and self-preservation, but they’re trying to make an improvement. But these may be … This level of discussion are things that may be … You know, Paul Ryan is not talking with his colleagues about thinking, you know, what’s the impact on the scientific enterprise gonna be if we repeal this tax credit, or the waiver. So this is really kind of an interesting thing to do and to dive into.
For the record, the society that we work for has come out in opposition to the tax reform as we’ve seen it. Now that doesn’t mean that that’s gonna change. It’s unlikely that we’re going to strongly endorse a tax reform bill because, again, it is so far outside of the realm and kind of the sweet spot for what we do our advocacy on.
But because the impact to graduate students, which are our members, and our future members … Because of the impact on universities with endowments, students with student loans … Because of the macro-economic issue of the need to cut in order to balance the budget after this, it’s kind of forced groups like ours and others … there are lots of others out there … to come to the table and to make it … kind of make a decision, and make a recommendation.
And in this instance, we’re recommending … Go back to the drawing board. If you’re gonna make a proposal like this, I understand. But maybe this isn’t the way to do it. And so … Closing thoughts.
DANIEL PHAM: The budget’s not even balanced. Even with all these cuts.
ANDRÉ PORTER: Right. If the Republicans spoke about creating tax reform that was budget-neutral. This isn’t a neutral proposal, so how can they move forward with it? I mean, they … I know how they can move forward with it, but how could they in their conscience move forward with a budget proposal that’s not budget-neutral. It’s nonsensical.
BENJAMIN CORB: Right. And, look, I’ve seen quotes from people … Members of the Freedom Caucus that have argued that this is their first bite of the apple. Step One of their fiscal plan is tax reduction. Step Two is reductions in spending in order to pay for the reductions in taxes. And if that’s the case, I think we have some difficult times ahead of us.
The current budget proposal that just passed through the house was 800 million dollars below the sequestration level, below the Budget Control Act levels of federal spending. And those federal spending levels are already at near-historic lows right now. So, a lot to watch here, a lot to pay attention to, a lot more for us to get involved in.
Thank you, Daniel. Thank you, André, for kind of going into it a little bit.
Thank you for listening, again. This is Pipettes and Politics, and we’ll be back.
ANGELA HOPP: This is Angela Hop, communications director for the ASBMB. I’d like to invite you to join us in San Diego in April for the society’s annual research conference. The ASBMB annual meeting offers presentation opportunities for researchers at all career stages, compelling scientific symposia, and fun networking and professional development events.
Submit your abstract by December 7th to be considered for a spotlight talk or poster presentation.
Visit asbmb.org for more information about the meeting and to learn how to apply for travel grants.
BENJAMIN CORB: I think you all for your time in listening. Again, this has been Pipettes and Politics. If you like us, tweet us @bwcorb, @anporter_, @dpham20, or you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you do tweet us, do it #pipettesandpolitics. We all have 280 characters now, so we can go a lot more with that.
Thank you and we will talk to you next time. Take care.