Many observers are deeply skeptical of higher education. At this political moment, distrust of the academy is being translated into law in ways that will damage our nation. State funding support for public universities is eroding. Important concerns about the cost, accessibility and effectiveness of education are being translated into tax bills that will harm students.
Although the value of research spending is being questioned, the value of research results for US innovation — such as Google or the smart phone — is not. By placing additional burdens on students, the current tax bill threatens the very foundation of our nation’s research success — the people whose work and training allow them to carry new ideas and skills from academic research groups to workplaces in many different sectors and industries — as well as future tax revenue.
At major universities, research is also teaching. Graduate training in the practice of research supports discovery and enables its application. Research creates ideas, and training transmits them. The students who do both things carry them out into the world where they have an impact on all our lives. J. Robert Oppenheimer said it best: “The best way to send knowledge is to wrap it up in a human being.” This is just what graduate education through research does. It is what the current tax bill threatens.
This isn’t just supposition; anecdotes abound. For instance, the discovery of a new search algorithm and the founding of a company, Google, to implement it was driven by graduate students working on a National Science Foundation-funded project at Stanford University. A key set of discoveries underpinning the multi-touch capabilities that allow iPhone users to scroll and zoom result from work done by a graduate student at the University of Delaware.
Large-scale, systematic data is becoming available. Work we published with collaborators in Science magazine demonstrates that research-trained graduate students who take industry jobs work in the most productive businesses in the most cutting-edge industries. Forthcoming work shows the critical role research training plays in creating successful startups that survive and create new jobs.
The tax bill passed by the House will dim our economic future — innovative workforce, startups, productive firms, competitive industries, even future tax revenue. Limiting the ability of graduate students from across the country and the income spectrum to pursue research and training together will also endanger our major research universities. These are the places where research and training, hand in hand, are likely to produce the greatest concentrations of new discoveries.
Increasing taxes on graduate students will unambiguously reduce that flow of ideas and imperil our national success. Moreover, the benefits of investments in training — the higher pay that trainees make and the increased economic activity they generate — are taxed. If training is discouraged by higher taxes today, future tax revenue will be reduced.
Why are we so sure? Because we are looking at evidence. The Institute for Research on Innovation and Science (IRIS), founded by my co-authors, Julia Lane from New York University and Jason Owen Smith from the University of Michigan, and me is a consortium of major research universities who share data to make just these kinds of analyses possible. We combine confidential data from universities and the U.S. Census Bureau for the first time to examine the careers of people trained in research. These data allow us to more fully understand how graduate students play key roles in research and its results. In 2015, nearly 43 percent of employees (more than 51,000 people) paid by federal grants at 23 IRIS universities were students.