APS News


Let's Fund Both Science and Entitlements

It is useful to have an update on the state of government support for physics research. However, Michael S. Lubell ("Will a Thaw Follow the Hard Freeze?" March 1997) devotes only a few paragraphs to that subject. His major purpose in the article is to advocate cutting "entitlements," particularly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He poses a false choice - cut entitlements or cut science research.

There are several reasons to read that article with skepticism. For one thing, as he points out, half of the government's discretionary budget is devoted to defense programs. Bloated Cold War defense spending has outlived its reason for existence by many years.

There are many such expenditures that could be cut for the good of the country and for peace in the world, as well as to foster science and vital civilian programs. Instead of focusing on this, Lubell reproduces the conservative doctrine on balancing budgets and reducing entitlements. He accepts, without question that the entitlements are a growing part of the budget and must be reined in, without asking why this situation has come to be.

Lubell calls for the adoption of the highly partisan Boskin committee report's conclusion that the Consumer Price Index is inflated and must be adjusted downward. This report is a transparent attempt to redefine the standard of living downward for most Americans.

Underlying all of Lubell's discussion is the supposition that the federal budget must be put in balance. While this makes good sloganeering, we physicists should know better. Without deficit spending, future programs, visionary or prosaic, will never be possible to support. All of recent history shows the US economy thriving while the government functions with an unbalanced budget. There is no evidence that a balanced budget produces positive effects on the economy as a whole, nor on the standard of living for the average citizen.

We physicists are trained in analytical reasoning. We must not accept the false choice, proposed by Lubell, between support for scientific research or support for the nation's elderly, poor and helpless.

Gary R. Goldstein
Tufts University

Lubell Replies...

Gary Goldstein raises some interesting and provocative points about the need for a balanced budget and the trade-off between growth of entitlements and cuts to the discretionary civilian programs. He suggests that balancing the federal budget is not good economic policy, since it inhibits long-term capital investment. He is correct, in my view. Indeed, if the federal budget were divided into operating and capital parts-which unfortunately it is not-the operating part currently would be in balance. But the political reality is that both parties have agreed to do their level best to balance the integrated federal budget. Case in point: The "Balanced Budget Amendment," which raised serious separation of powers issues, for the second consecutive year missed a two-thirds majority in the Senate by only one vote.

Goldstein also suggests that the federal government should spend less money on the military and impose price controls on the delivery of medical services. Whatever the merits of these proposals, they are simply not politically viable at this time. And so far as the Boskin report is concerned, while there is some debate over the numbers, an overwhelming majority of economists who have spoken out believe that the CPI is not a good measure of Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) for Social Security. Although President Clinton has backed away from the idea of a bipartisan COLA commission, the proposal still has some breath left on Capitol Hill. The reason is simple. Social Security is going to be in trouble in less than thirty years simply due to demographics. Either taxes will have to go up or benefits will have to be cut. Again, the political reality is that right now nobody will consider raising taxes.

So, for the foreseeable future science will be squeezed if the entitlement budget continues to grow. It will take a lot of Gary Goldsteins to change the political landscape. Of course, that doesn't mean they shouldn't try.

Michael S. Lubell

On the Influx of Foreign Students

Allan Bromley's remarks on the "influx of foreign students" (February 1997, APS News) reminded me of Will Rogers' comment in the early 1930s: "Its not what President Hoover doesn't know that bothers me, it's what he does know that ain't so!" Bromley states that "... last summer the INS substantially tightened the restrictions on admission of foreign scholars and students." (He apparently meant Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.) After consulting the law and checking with an attorney specializing in immigration, I find that Bromley is entirely mistaken. It is essentially "business as usual" for the influx of foreign students and scholars; ditto for skills-based importation of scientists and engineers.

As for his other point on the brain drain "not going to be allowed to continue" by "..their home countries," he is also wrong. Many foreign countries have surpluses of scientists and engineers and will continue to send them abroad to relieve their own domestic surpluses and to earn U.S. dollars from expat remittances. The only noticeable drop is students from Taiwan, not because of a government clamp down, but rather improved economic and political conditions at home.

Bromley also posited the reason that half U.S. science and engineering doctorates go to foreigners is that "... our problem has not been too many foreign students, but too few American students." Of course this is a "chicken and egg" argument. Back in 1991, John M. Deutch of MIT in a Science (Vol. 253, p. 492) editorial, broached the idea of a reduction in the proportion of foreign students to about 20% (excluding those from Canada and Mexico) to encourage recruitment of U.S. young people, especially minorities and women into scientific careers. In other words, U.S. students would be attracted to these careers by a tighter labor market. This is much in the style of Brian Schwartz's use of the "X" word (xenophobia) in his "The Back Page" piece (February 1997, APS News) under the rubric of Myth #4 (concerning "..large numbers foreign graduate students").

Bromley attributes the illusory reductions ".in part because of pressure from Americans who didn't want the increased competition." Interestingly enough, both Bromley and Schwartz are tenured professors and hence exempt from labor market economics. Were tenure abolished or greatly modified they would surely more keenly appreciate the situation of many APS members when U.S. university administrators began importing highly qualified and less expensive foreign nationals.

The current oversupply of PhDs is clearly related to immigration policy, which is itself a legitimate, though often uncomfortable, topic for debate. Currently universities gear the size of PhD programs to their "needs" to attract lucrative federal research grants (not to the PhD job market). Foreign students supply half the labor. What is wrong with this? It ignores the fact that the U.S. taxpayer largely bears the direct and hidden costs, while the majority of U.S. citizen PhDs-both native born and immigrants receive little benefit.

William E. Murray, Jr.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin