Recurring Decimals…..

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Lou Dobbs’ truthism on science

with 11 comments

Lou Dobbs is a TV and radio hack on the lines of Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage who comes on CNN every evening to supposedly champion the cause of the American middle-class against the excesses of capitalism. In reality, he shrills about immigrants and BPOs taking American jobs with a paranoia that borders on xenophobia.  More often than not while furthering his alarmist agenda, he does not shy away from deliberate dishonesty e.g. often obfuscating facts vis-a-vis legal and illegal immigration issues.

Having taken on technology companies, H1B workers, Mexicans etc. for the longest time, he recently turned his attack on US science, with the usual malicious blend of partial facts and truthisms:

Quite a bad case of ascribing causation based on evidence that does not exist. Generally, I would not bother myself with this level of idiocy. The segment would have been conveniently ignored but for the fact it was highlighted by a science blog, Biocurious, with the following commentary from the blogger:

I think the process Dobbs describes is basically correct. If Americans cut off the supply of foreign scientists by making it even harder to get visas, postdoc salaries would increase because of the sudden drop in available labour,…..

Excuse me ?!! I can understand someone like Dobbs pandering to his constituency to drive his ratings, but for a graduate student in one of the premier universities in the US to be taken in by this  unbalanced rhetoric is quite perplexing  – not to mention, a bit disturbing. A few counterarguments are thus necessary.

Firstly, this foreigner argument would imply that post-doc/scientist salaries were high before the so-called influx of foreign scientists. But that is obviously not true. Post-doc, and even professorial salaries in science have been historically low (even globally) compared to other professions.  I remember my PhD supervisor who was a post-doc in the 70s talking about the extremely low (inflation adjusted) salaries way back then, when very few foreign post-docs came to the US. In fact, ever since 98/99, when Congress changed rules placing universities and non-profit organizations outside the H1B quota, thereby providing these institutions with ‘unrestricted access’ to  foreigners,  NIH-recommended salary scales have actually gone up.

Secondly, it is not as if foreign scientists are coming to work in the US for cheaper salaries,  they get paid the same as any US-based PhD. In fact, it is a bit more costly for a professor to hire an foreign post-doc, considering that in most cases international air-fares have to provided as part of the relocation package, visa paperworks need to be submitted – and paid for (contrary to what Dobbs is saying, obtaining a US work visa is still not a trivial issue).  Thus it also takes more time for a foreign post-doc to start their work after receiving an employment offer, meaning loss of research time for the professor. Additionally, an investigator is taking a bit of a risk in investing on an international person without the benefit on a in-person interview. The fact that foreign post-docs  get hired in spite of all these hassles would indicate that there aren’t enough qualified candidates in the US (and even as such, I not believe that scientific jobs or scientific investigation is a finite quantity ).

[We could argue about the causes for and the unsustainable nature of the currently skewed ration of  post-doctoral positions and academic jobs available to them, not just in the US but in countries like the UK and Australia as well. But that is not related to foreign scientists or salaries, and is a separate and more serious issue]

Thirdly, anyone related to academic sciences should know that the post-doctoral position is not one that offers  a choice. Any academic position (even teaching jobs in liberal arts colleges) now require a significant post-doctoral experience. In such a scenario, salaries can be kept low artificially whether or not there is a glut of labor in the market.

Apart from these primary arguments, here are some more points – not all directly related to the salary issue, but obviously neglected by Dobbs:

1. A small nitpick, but the story mentions salaries as low as $35K; AFAIK NIH minimum standards are $36-38K for first year post-docs plus health insurance in most cases.

Also, a number of grants funded by NIH, NSF and federal agencies such as National Institute of Standards and Technology, Office of Naval Research etc offer post-doc fellowships at a much higher rate, to the tunesof $ 50-70K (though reserved mostly for US citizens).

2.  Not all post-doc positions can be held by foreigners, certain training salaries even stipulate that only US-citizen/permanent residents can hold the job. Moreover, international post-docs are not allowed to work  at certain places like the NIH campuses in Bethesda and Frederick (possibly at the one in North Carolina as well) under the H1B worker’s visa (sometimes they can work, but only under the much more restrictive J-1 exchange visa). Finally, NIH’s prestigious post-doctoral fellowships can be obtained only by US citizens/PRs.

It would appear therefore that US nationals and permanent residents are well protected in terms of obtaining post-doctoral jobs/fellowships, sometimes at salaries higher than the market rate.

3. It should be noted that those post-docs working in universities on quota-exempt H1B visa cannot move to the industry or to for-profit organizations without returning to the H1B ‘quota pool’. For the last few years this industry quota has been oversubscribed making it highly difficult for international post-docs to land jobs outside academia.

This means a relative lack of competition for US nationals in the industrial sector, which certainly does not pay badly.

4. As pointed out in the comments section of the Biocurious blog-post, a percentage of the foreign post-docs in the US come from Europe or Australia, where they often bring funding from their own countries.

5. No mention is made of the percentage of the foreign post-docs who received their PhD in the US. It would be self-defeating for US to allow scientists trained by them to take their expertise elsewhere.

From these points, it should be obvious that the influx of international scientists cannot be the major reason for scientist salaries to be low. Science policies, lack of funding, failure to groom scientists at an early age, fewer career prospects and a host of other factors have contributed to the situation.

On the other hand, the question of low salary, or to be more exact, the issue of post-doc periods getting longer without proper career prospects is indeed a major one. The likes of Dobbs are guilty of  trivializing  an important concern by using the red herring of foreign labor.


While on this topic, I am not even bringing up the point of how in the present climate of globalization it is fool-hardy to be restrictive on  themovement of human capital. Or, the more obvious point of how US science could hardly have scaled the heights it is at today with tough restrictions to entry of foreigners. Imagine Einstein and Bohr prevented from entering the US, and you can just as well imagine the Manhattan project being conducted in Germany! Not to mention the slew of Nobel prize winners who were born abroad but did their path breaking science in the US.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Illegal immigrants are SCUM which think they are above the laws of the nation they invade.


    January 26, 2009 at 11:14 pm

  2. […] Pondit takes Lou Dobbs to task on his uneducated and misleading tirade against postdoctoral employees in the U.S. Mind you, these are highly-qualified legal immigrants. The terms and conditions involved in even […]

  3. I haven’t seen/heard the Dobbs argument but just to get to your point #1, there are indeed postdoc positions that pay $35K or less, and these are common in many state universities. Professors can get away with paying low postdoc salaries if they bring people on J-1 visas instead of H1-B (for which there are stipulated minima, like you mentioned for NIH postdocs).


    January 28, 2009 at 5:02 pm

  4. @Ravi: Personally in the field of biomedical sciences I have not seen any case of people being paid less than NIH scales, even for J1 visas and state colleges, but that could be because funding is more generous in the field. Even then my contention stands that post-doc salaries are low due to a combination of many factors and not just a flux of foreign workers.


    January 29, 2009 at 3:35 am

  5. Yes, I agree with your point that postdoc wages were low even before the influx of foreign PhDs, and blaming foreign workers makes Dobbs sound like Raj Thackeray. In chemistry, physics, materials science and related fields, academic postdocs (American and foriegn) are paid poorly. The situation is better in national labs (I’m at one of them) and industries, where postdocs can indeed make $50K and above as you have pointed out. Part of the problem might be that in academia, particularly in state universities, a postdoc is viewed more as a step above a grad student, as opposed to a step below an assistant professor. My two cents, anyway.


    January 30, 2009 at 6:52 pm

  6. @BongoP’o’ndit: I agree with your view on the overall greater problem with science (lack of jobs after the postdoc). But I have to disagree with your response to Ravi. I am in the biomedical sciences and I only know a FEW post-docs that get payed on the NIH scale (and this is regardless of what the schools say they pay postdocs!) I know that the school says you should get this much, and that profs funded by NIH should pay postdocs this much, but come on. There is no one enforcing this! Look at my school, look at my credential, look at my paycheck. Then look at most of the other postsdocs here.
    I am at a top 10 school. Most profs are NIH funded. And very few postdoc get the NIH pay. Period.


    February 16, 2009 at 3:02 pm

  7. When I searched for a post-doc last year I can across schools/hospitals that paid more than NIH stipends, paid the same and yes even offered less than NIH levels. The guy that was offering less was about $32000 and he thought that was generous for a Big10 school. I am lucky because where I am at now, I do get the NIH level for first year post-doc but I also have health, life insurance, dental, eye and retirement benefits, which most of the other places (even the higher paid post docs) did not offer.


    August 4, 2009 at 10:46 pm

  8. I see this show is a year old- but I ‘ve been looking for someone that is addressing this issue. Having working in the non-profit medical research sector for many years- it has bothered me for just as long that the American taxpayers- whose money funds the NIH- are paying outrageous salaries to foreigners- who take away jobs from Americans. I have a brother who left research- he has a Ph.D.- because of the competition of immigrants for NIH funds. These funds DO NOT go for lab equipment – much of it goes for salaries- and contrary to this report saying they make only $40,000 a year- there are MANY foreign scientist making upwards of $200,000 a year in cancer research. The director where I work became a citizen here 20 years ago- because the pay to do research is so much higher- he make close to $700,000 a year. Much of that from NIH funds! If foreigners want to come here to do research- they should be paid by THEIR OWN COUNTRIES! Why should Americans foot the bills- and most of them never accomplish a damn thing. PLUS their families come here and they give THEM jobs at the research institutions where they work. I FOR ONE AM SICK OF IT


    April 14, 2010 at 11:03 pm

  9. I hope I get some responses- there must be someone out there who has experienced the same thing!


    April 14, 2010 at 11:05 pm

  10. @Dirogo Can you point me to these labs where postdocs make @200,000 a year because you know right now all postdocs in my field (immigrants or non immigrants) make less than 40K a year?

    Also most of us are working on unimportant things like cure for cancer, AIDS, diabetes or engineering problems that are completely unimportant to America. I mean why should we work for next to nothing on something America has no use for! I would really like to know that too.

    A Postdoc

    April 15, 2010 at 1:42 pm

  11. […] agree about the foreign students perhaps tolerating poor working conditions, but (and I have argued this in details before) pay-scales for both post-docs and PhDs have been low even when the foreign talent pool was small. […]

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