Dr. Norm Matloff On Cartoons, the National Institutes of Health and H-1B

Dr. Norm Matloff writes to his email list:

Below I'll discuss a recent high-level conference at the National Institutes of Health, our nation's chief government funder of medical and biological research. I regard it as epitomizing the corruption underlying H-1B and other foreign worker programs.

Preliminaries--the central role of money:

If you're of a certain age, you may recall the William Hamilton cartoons. Not quite editorials, usually not quite straight humor, but just plain biting social commentary. The one that comes to mind here shows a senior medical professor with two young colleagues. The mentor advises the junior faculty, "Yes, cancer and heart disease, that's where the money is, boys." The message, presumably, is that medical researchers are driven by money and power, rather than a desire to alleviate human suffering.

As a mathematics student aiming for a university career at the time I saw this cartoon, I understood it. But I didn't really experience it until I moved from the UCD Mathematics and Statistics Departments to the Computer Science Dept. in the College of Engineering. What an awakening! I had transferred from a community of scholars to a crass world of...well, I'll refrain from using the word "hustlers" and just settle for "merchants."

I shouldn't have been so naive, as it is well known that money is king in the life sciences and engineering. (True to some degree in the physical sciences, but not the case in math.) Just as politicians spend much of their waking hours each day scrounging for campaign funds, professors in the life sciences and engineering likewise devote huge portions of their time writing grant applications, seeking donations and so on.

There is a concomitant obsession to "get the most bang for your buck"--i.e. for a given amount of research funding, maximizing the number of papers one publishes, the number of PhDs one graduates, etc. And the way to do that is...H-1B.

No, typically foreign students don't get smaller stipends than their American classmates, and foreign post docs don't get paid less than their U.S. peers. Instead, the goal of the F-1 student visa and H-1B programs is to flood the market to keep prices down. (The foreign students become H-1Bs upon taking post doc positions, so below I'll refer to them as H-1Bs for simplicity.) This, as I've pointed out so often, is precisely what was advocated by the influential National Science Foundation position paper of 1989.

A Dickensian life:

The pernicious effects of H-1B in the computer field, bad as they are, pale in comparison with the impacts on the life sciences. We are producing far more PhDs and post docs in those fields than we need, and much of that surplus is fueled by people from abroad.

As a result, life as a post doc is Dickensian. They are at an age where they should have gotten a start on adult life, say with marriage or purchase of a house, and yet they are essentially still students--for years and years after their PhD, in a series of temporary jobs. Even worse, they are going through all this without any reasonable assurance that they'll eventually be able to enjoy a career in their field.

Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman remarks (at about 12280 seconds into the video), "At the end of this very long training where you earn relatively little money, you have great uncertainty about what your career outcome is going to be."

It goes without saying that many of our own best and brightest young scientists avoid this like the plague, and choose some other profession--the Internal Brain Drain I keep citing as the most worst consequence of H-1B.

The NIH study:

Clearly, the NIH knows about this horrendous problem. So, NIH Director Francis Collins--famous for the Human Genome Project, a man of conscience, I believe--instructed a committee to study the problem and recommend solutions.

You can view the verbal presentation of the study's findings here and read them here. You may also find some familiar names in the Biomedical Workforce Modeling Subcommittee Roster, here.

(Note: In the video, the presentation itself doesn't start until minute 134.)

Major point #1--the NIH admits that H-1B is a large part of the problem:

Unlike the situation in the computer industry, in which the employers of H-1Bs insist they're using the foreign workers to remedy a labor shortage, the NIH committee states explicitly, several times, that not only is there a labor surplus but also that the H-1Bs are a major cause of the problem.

Major point #2--the NIH admits that this surplus is driving America's own best and brightest young people away from careers in STEM:

As one of the speakers puts it (at about 12260 seconds into the video), "The salaries are SO low, and the training paths are SO long, that they're choosing alternative careers." This is a recurring theme in the video.

I've been making the point for years that H-1B is causing an Internal Brain Drain from STEM in the U.S., by suppressing wage growth and thus pushing our best and brightest young people into more lucrative careers in finance, law and so on. I've contended that the tech industry is thus shooting itself in the foot, a loss for the nation as well.

Well, the NIH committee recognizes this, and considers it one of the most acute aspects of the scientist glut problem. (Keep this in mind, as it will be important below.)

Major point #3--in spite of the grave problems, the NIH is NOT willing to make fundamental changes to the system.

This shouldn't be surprising, given the huge role of money in academia, and the fact that H-1B gives academics "more bang for their buck." And yet...isn't academia supposed to be a purer world, one whose central goal is the noble pursuit of truth? Isn't the very notion of a university symbolized by Harvard's motto, Veritas? Academia's refusal to fix the real problem is disgraceful.

Major point #4--one of NIH's main "solutions" completely ignores what is arguably the most salient issue, namely the loss of our own best and brightest young people from careers in science:

The NIH committee mentions several times that one of the best "solutions" to the glut problem is the development of Professional Master's Degree programs. This idea, which has become fashionable in recent years, is to train people to work in professions in which a STEM background is useful, but which are NON-SCIENCE jobs, mainly in business. The graduate might, for instance, become of marketer of biopharmaceutical substances, or an analyst on Wall Street who specializes in the biopharmaceutical industry. See for instance this .

That's fine in the sense that at least STEM students can find careers, but in terms of the big picture, it's absolutely appalling. It completely sidesteps what was supposedly the most acute problem, the loss of our best and brightest young people from careers as scientists. When a young person who might have become a brilliant scientist instead is touting biopharma stocks on Wall Street, that's a huge loss in my book. It's a huge loss in NIH's book too, but since they are unwilling to take the most direct solution, which is to vastly scale down the foreign influx, NIH has to come up with non-solutions such as professional master's degrees.

Final comments:

Please note once again that I fully support bringing in the best and the brightest talents from around the world, but again the vast majority of H-1Bs are merely competent, not brilliant. I've contended that on the contrary, the H-1Bs are on average LESS innovative than the Americans they are displacing, a net loss for the nation.

I'll close with another Hamilton cartoon, which I just found on the Web:

A retired CEO protests to a few friends, ""Sure, I exploited, but I never outsourced." There degrees of culpability, to be sure. I must say that I'd place the level of culpability of the NIH et al even higher than that of the computer industry, as the academics are producing even worse damage, all coming from an ostensibly nobler profession.