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Opinion: The GOP Tax Bill Could Derail Synthetic Biology

Under the House version of the GOP tax plan, students pursuing graduate degrees in the U.S. would see their taxes explode (up 100 to 300%). Because many of us grad students are already living on the edge of poverty, this is more than a financial inconvenience: it could force many budding scientists to end their education prematurely or not pursue higher education at all. America stands to lose an entire generation of synthetic biologists.

Yesterday hundreds of budding synthetic biologists (and early-career scholars of all stripes) walked out of their laboratories and classrooms to protest proposed changes to U.S. tax law.

“I can’t even afford ramen”, read one hand-made sign at the protest.

Another, scrawled on a tattered piece of scrap paper, read: “We can’t even afford real signs.”

This #GradTaxWalkout occurred because graduate students around the country are terrified. We fear we could soon be squeezed out of our graduate education because of exploding taxation.

Buried deep inside the current tax code lies Section 117(d), a narrow rule which exempts “qualified tuition reduction” from calculations of an individual’s income.  Basically, under the current rules, if a graduate student teaches or conducts research at a qualified university – and that university in turn waives their tuition – the federal government does not count the tuition waiver as part of that student’s taxable income.

This waived-tuition-if-you-work arrangement is common among graduate students pursuing doctoral degrees in science and engineering. And it makes sense. Most of us receive a modest (taxable) stipend from our university to cover living expenses during the years it takes to earn a PhD, and in almost every case, tuition dwarfs the stipend.

Instead of paying graduate students, say, $50,000 as stipend and charging $30,000 for tuition, my university simply waives my tuition and pays me a taxable income of approximately $20,000, from which I pay $2,663 in federal taxes.

The House version of the Republican tax plan specifically eliminates the section of the tax code which protects graduate students, choosing instead to regard graduate tuition waivers as taxable income (even though we grad students never see the money). Now, instead of taxing just the $20,000 per year I take home in the form of my graduate stipend, the federal government would consider my income to be $48,800 after standard deductions. My tax bill would balloon from $2,663 to $6,350 with no concurrent change in my take-home pay.

For students at universities with higher tuition the situation is even worse. Concerned graduate students can use this calculator to find out just how much more they would owe.

Graduate school is hard enough. It requires grueling hours and immense dedication. No one commits to a PhD in the sciences to get rich. I committed to it because I believe in the power of science – specifically synthetic biology – to better the world.

Before starting my doctorate, I worked on developing enzymes for sustainable biofuel production as a research assistant in the biotech industry. I enjoyed the work but felt I needed a more advanced education to really push the field forward. In my graduate work, I am attempting to bring the full weight of computer science to bear on enzyme design, with the ultimate goal of producing efficient enzymes for user-defined chemical reactions entirely from scratch.

I would not have been able to return to school were it not for my graduate stipend and my tuition waiver. Starting my PhD meant accepting a 60 percent  pay cut from  what I was earning in industry. As a young scientist with no dependents I could stomach that. But if the proposed changes to the tax code endure, the next generation of emerging scientists may not be able to.

The prospect of living in cities like Seattle, Boston, or San Francisco (the American hubs of synthetic biology) on less than $20,000 per year seems like a cruel joke. For many it would preclude the possibility of starting a family. For others (such as myself) it would necessitate taking on even more burdensome student loan debt. Many may decide it doesn’t make sense to pursue a doctorate in the sciences at all.

If graduate school becomes economically unfeasible for most interested young scientists, America stands to lose an entire generation of synthetic biologists.


Ian Haydon

Ian Haydon is a scientist and science communicator based in Seattle. His writing has appeared in Scientific American, RealClearScience, Salon, the International Business Times and more. He holds a master's degree in biological design and was a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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