Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson
Some of our loyal readers may have noticed this column has had an irregular publication schedule lately. This is because I wanted to give everyone a fresh update from the Society for Neuroscience 2017’s annual meeting, the largest gathering of over 30,000 neuroscientists every year to discuss the most fascinating and cutting-edge research.
Unfortunately, that update will have to wait another week, because today I feel compelled to use my platform to talk about the current tax bill making its way through congress. This bill, if passed, would effectively make graduate school impossible for all those but the independently wealthy, and would decimate the structure of science as we know it.
I typically keep this column apolitical, as my goal is to spread interesting neuroscience knowledge to everyone, rather than wading into the political thicket. Were this bill to have been proposed by the other side of the aisle, I would take equal issue. This overarching legislation aims to in part simplify taxes to, as its proponents so often state, ‘the back of a postcard.’
One such ‘simplification’ is the repeal of Section 117(d)(5), a tiny piece of the tax code that makes a huge difference to graduate students. In most STEM graduate programs, students have their tuitions waived and are awarded a modest stipend of approximately $20,000-$30,000 per year to focus on their research. Under the current tax code, graduate students are only taxed on their stipends, which makes sense, as this is the only money they actually take home.
In the tax bill just approved by the house, this exemption is removed. That means a catastrophic increase in tax burdens for all STEM graduate students. Let’s take an average graduate student in Columbia’s Neurobiology PhD program. Their take-home income is just under $30,000 from their stipends, but Columbia’s tuition (which, again, a graduate student never sees or pays), is nearly $50,000. If the senate passes the current version of this bill, graduate students will see a tripling of their tax burden, an increase of over $10,000.
Essentially, by trying to simplify the tax code, this bill would prevent all but the most wealthy of graduate students from pursuing higher education. While some universities may be able to increase stipends to compensate, most cannot afford to. Graduate students are the backbone of labs, and their projects make up the bulk of research happening in the US; without them, there is no science as we know it.
Without this tiny line of tax code, programs will slash acceptances, US science productivity will plummet, and the hundreds of innovations which have made us a superpower will grind to a halt. Like all of STEM, neuroscience is reliant on the productive output of graduate students. While we are on the cusp of incredible breakthroughs in understanding the brain — many of which can lead to cures for heartbreaking diseases — none of that is possible with the passage of this tax bill in its current form.
This is bigger than politics, and this is bigger than just science. This is about ensuring that the United States continues to be the world’s leader in innovative scientific and technological breakthroughs. If you enjoy the tiny computer in your pocket, have yourself been or known someone helped by modern medicine, or believe in the necessity of scientific progress, please take the time to speak out against this bill and ensure that if it progresses, it does so without this provision. You can find your representative’s information here; ask them to oppose the repeal of Section 117(d)(5) within the Tax Cut and Jobs Act.
Next week, I promise we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming with some fun, new neuroscience findings.