Why the tax bill Is bad for science, innovation and America
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Congress hasn’t completed work on new tax legislation, but the blueprint, so far, is bad news for science, the workforce and the economy of the future. Before we survey the bill’s likely damage, let’s start with four facts that point to a bleak economic future if we sit back on our science laurels.

First, science and technology are responsible for up to 70 percent of today’s American economic growth. Second, America’s vaunted science and technology leadership is no longer so vaunted: in the “2017 Global Innovation Index” the United States barely ranked fourth. Third, foreign applicants accounted more than 50 percent of U.S. patents granted in 2015, the latest year for which data are available. Fourth, and a possible explanation for the previous two, the United States ranks 11th globally in spending on research and development in terms of economic strength.

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How does the tax bill address these issues? In short, it doesn’t. In fact, it promises to deliver bad medicine to a sick patient. Here’s why.

Let’s begin with House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees House Republican: 'I worry about both sides' of the aisle on DACA Overnight Health Care: 3.6M signed up for ObamaCare in first month | Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' next year | Dems push for more money to fight opioids MORE (R-Wis.). He’s been making the case for years that U.S. corporate taxes are the highest in the world and that lowering the tax rate will spur business expansion, create more jobs and boost wages.

There’s little evidence to support either of his two postulates.

First, while the current statutory federal tax rate is 39.1 percent, the Congressional Budget Office has concluded that the effective corporate tax rate is only 18.6 percent and not very different than the rates elsewhere in the world. 

Lowering the statutory rate to 20 percent, without closing loopholes, and granting a one-time rate of 10 percent on repatriated monies stashed overseas – as the draft bill proposes – will certainly improve the bottom line of many corporations. But if past is prologue, companies will use their newfound wealth to improve their cash positions and to buy back stock, boosting share prices, and benefiting corporate executives and investors.

In 2004, during the run up to a tax holiday on repatriated foreign holdings, corporations promised to use some of their windfall profits to invest in research and development. But they failed to follow through. There is no reason to think they will behave any differently now.

If there is no corporate research boon, it will be business as usual, with the federal government continuing to pick up the tab on long-term research, as it has done for decades. But its ability to do so will depend on tax revenues and caps on deficit spending.

Neither the Reagan tax cuts in the 1980s nor the Bush tax cuts in 2001 boosted federal revenues to any discernable degree. And if the Kansas experiment is any guide, the entire proposition is specious. Gov. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) slashed taxes in 2012, and five years later Kansas was gasping for breath as revenues continued to tank and services cuts became an actuality. (Reality check: Kansas had to raise taxes this past year.)

If federal revenues behave similarly, federal support of scientific research will go the way of Kansas spending on education – down dramatically. And with economic growth tightly tied to scientific and technological innovation, the outlook for the future will be dimmer, not brighter.

But squeezing science spending is only part of the legislative evil. The bill would also tax tuition waivers, for which graduate students in the sciences have received an exemption since the 1950s. And that change is a really big deal. No, it’s actually nuts.

Industry complains it cannot find enough technically skilled American workers and fights for more H-1B imported workers. Why make it harder for Americans to get advanced degrees?

Consider the case of a full-time doctoral student receiving a $30,000 stipend and a $30,000 tuition waiver. The proposed legislation would treat $60,000, rather than $30,000, as the student’s taxable income. You don’t need a Ph.D. to see how that change would drive down enrollment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – where Americans are often in scarce supply. If you want to kill innovation, it’s a pretty good first step.

Finally, by taxing interest on education loans, the proposed legislation will drive students into the workplace sooner and make them forego the kinds of advanced training STEM fields require.

Whether you believe the tax bill is good for the middle class or whether you believe it enriches the rich, you must recognize it’s a destructive piece of legislation for science and the benefits that accrue – economic growth, cures for disease and national security. Congress and the president need to wise up.

Michael S. Lubell, a physics professor at City College of the City University of New York, is the author of the forthcoming book, “Navigating the Maze: How Science and Technology Policy Shape America and the World.” Burton Richter, an emeritus professor of physical sciences at Stanford, a Nobel Laureate and National Medal of Science winner, is the author of “Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century.”