The Economics of Immigrant Scientists.

Many years ago, a young foreign-born postdoc scientist confided that his mentor/supervisor at a major private university slammed the refrigerator door on his hand while he was reaching to get a pre-fabricated protein gel. The supervisor was particularly crass, and demanded, ‘Do you pay taxes here (in the United States)?”  Not surprisingly, the postdoc was shocked and confused wondering what he did wrong.  After all, he was doing the routine stuff- setting up an experiment using a pre-fabricated gel just like the other 10 or so postdocs in the lab did.  But the supervisor went on, “You know that the gel is expensive and the US taxpayers’ dollars go into (buying) it.”  Considering that the situation could become ugly, the postdoc quietly left the spot and continued his work.

The ignorant professor’s aggression was an uncharacteristic display of his stupidity since his laboratory’s research depended on the hard work of foreign-born scientists.  At the same time, his letting down of the thin veil of civility was disturbing because it exposed a similarly ugly mentality of a segment of our society.  This ugliness surfaces every now and then in the popular media in the form of immigration debate.

This story has troubled me ever since.  Although I am not a social scientist, immigration law expert, or an economist, I gave a little more thought to it.  By asking whether the postdoc paid taxes, the professor was assuming that the foreign-born postdoc was a tax burden to the people of the United States. It is true that a small number of scientists from foreign countries may opt to not pay taxes under certain US scientists exchange programs. But the majority of working scientists, including our friend, pays taxes just like any US citizen.  So, we can safely say that the professor was an idiot and forget about the entire incident.

But wait.  That is not the complete story.  There are some broader interesting facts related to the issue of foreigners in this country that most politicians and demagogues conveniently ignore. Let’s start by declaring that a foreign-born scientist, engineer or doctor is a huge free grant from her/his country (read Third World Country)  to the people of the United States!

I will try to explain it very briefly.  When a scientist, engineer or doctor enters this country, her professional education, in fact,  her entire existence has been fully paid by the taxpayers of her native country.  When a foreign-born professional decides to migrate to the US, she brings the wealth of her nation with her.  The taxpayers of the US had no contribution to her upbringing, education or professional training.  The US taxpayers simply receive services from day one without spending a dollar.

This brings me to another question-  how many dollars does an immigrating professional scientist, engineer or doctor represent?  Put another way, how many dollars’ worth of gain does the US have from the immigrant scientists? It is a tough question to answer because cost of living in different countries may vary widely. However, we can roughly estimate how much it would cost us in the US to raise a child to obtain a professional degree.  A news article in The Wall Street Journal mentioned about cost of raising a child in the US (Click here),  The cost of raising a child without the expenses of college education was pegged at $300,000.  To this add the cost of preparing a professional through advance graduate degree.  I could not immediately get a reliable number for the US medical or engineering education, but a published study in 2003 (click here) showed that medical schools (6 years) in Thailand spent more than 2 million baht (approx. $ 70,000) per medical student. We can safely assume that the cost of training medical professionals in the US is much higher than that. Based on this information, I will take a guess here to say that to raise a professional born in the US, it would cost $ 1 million to the US taxpayers.  Now you see where I am going?  Every foreign-born and trained professional migrating to the US is worth $1 million to the US!

That brings us to the next question-  how many foreign-born professionals are in the US?  The answer is a LOT!  In the healthcare, almost a quarter of the workforce including doctors (Click here, or here, or here, or here).  The numbers for PhDs and engineers are equally high (Click here).  Now if you multiply the number of foreign-born professionals with a $1 million price-tag, you will immediately realize that the so called Third World countries (it is a stupid term since the ‘Second World’ does not exist anymore) donate billions of dollars to the US in terms of manpower! Not a bad deal, eh? We can now begin to deconstruct the motive of our lectern-thumping politicians in the immigration debate. We can also put the US govt’s aid to developing nations in some perspective.

Then there is the question of snatching the american jobs-  the facts tell us (if you read the links above) that there is a serious shortage of professionals in the US.  These foreigners do not ‘steal’ jobs, instead they contribute to the society in a very positive manner to keep the US at the forefront of scientific and technological advancement.

Of course there are many debatable issues of socio-economic and political nature but at least as scientists and academicians we should chose to use our brains and not brand the foreign-born scientists as usurpers. And certainly not smash refrigerator door on the hands of a hard-working postdoc.

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One PI =One R01 grant.

The great economic crisis in the Western world has affected the academic and research institutions.  One of the major funding agencies NIH has seen effective funding cut that has translated in reduction of both number of research grants and the amount of money apportioned to them.  The situation has reached a crisis level.  Yet, there seems to be no effect on the ‘higher echelons’ of the research community.

Research dollars are disproportionately distributed among researchers.  Although we resent to the notion that 1% of the US population possesses 90% of the wealth, we do not react the same way to the financial disparity in scientific research.  Relatively few scientists have monopolized the major chunk of tax-payers’ dollars while a large number of competent and innovative scientists do not.  This needs to end!

In these difficult times, everyone is required to sacrifice a little.  We ought to ensure that publicly funded scientific research is distributed to all competent scientists and not only to the members of scientific power broker cartel.  There is no obvious reason why a researcher should have more than one R01 grant, especially during tough economic situation.  By adopting One PI= One R01, the NIH can support thousands more new scientists and diversify the scientific research base.  By doing so, NIH will promote innovative research to catalyze scientific growth.

We should also understand that NIH cannot make a law.  To achieve One PI=One R01, we have to inform and educate our legislators of the benefits of this formula.  Write to your House Representative and Senator asking them to consider broadening the productive and innovative scientific base by expanding the participation by new scientists.  Ask them to implement One PI= One R01 formula.  There are numerous benefits of One PI= One R01 to the scientific community. It will improve educational standards of the universities and will bring back talent to our educational institutions.  This is the only way to assure that dwindling scientific impact is regained.