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.

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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.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

January 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Nobel Prize in Medicine, Physiology….

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…..is awarded for discovery of gene-knockout technologies in mice. Recipients are Drs Mario R. Capecchi (University of Utah), Martin J. Evans (Cardiff University ) and Oliver Smithies (UNC – my former stomping ground!).

This is a discovery that would have won the award sooner or later. Genetically modified mice are now an indispensable part of research into gene function and regulation (more details on the methods and the research here). What is interesting that gene regulation techniques have won the prize on two consecutive years and the gene knockout, an older discovery, won after RNA interference.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 8, 2007 at 7:56 pm

Posted in Science

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