Dean Mike Klag

Open Mike: A Different Future

By Michael J. Klag , MD, MPH ’87

Don’t give away the seed corn. It’s your future, as any good farmer will tell you.

Research is our 21st-century seed corn. Research delivers the new discoveries that propel our advances in science, technology and human health. It’s the engine of innovation and economic growth. One nonpartisan study found that government-funded research delivers an annual return of more than 25 percent.

There’s no free lunch, of course. This essential link to a prosperous and healthy future requires investment. Yet suddenly our leaders are not willing to invest in the future. The U.S. government’s budget sequestration (with its requisite 8.2 percent cut to biomedical research) is just the latest example of this perilous trend.

It’s time to ask: Is this the right thing for our country?

In low- and middle-income countries, there’s an incredible investment in research. Last year in China, for example, the research budget for schools of public health increased by more than 30 percent over the previous year. Countries all over the world are leaping into the knowledge-based economy. Whether it’s Singapore, the Gulf states or Brazil, everybody is investing in research. And they are increasing their investment while we are backing away from ours. This is not how we built the world’s largest economy. At a time when people are trying to be more like us, we’re trying to be less like us.

Sequestration, with its automatic, uniformly deployed spending cuts, manifests our government’s growing unwillingness to invest in the future. The problem with sequestration is it’s an across-the-board, dumb cut. It’s a haircut for everybody—even programs with proven effectiveness like Head Start. This kind of cut doesn’t allow you to trim the budget in ways that eliminate inefficiency or least hurt your mission. The result is predictable. Important programs suffer just as much as less important programs.

Here at the Bloomberg School, sequestration is already being felt. Let me rephrase that. “Felt” is not the right word. It’s more like a punch in the gut. The potential hit to our budget in the next federal fiscal year is $27 million.

The lab sciences already have been hit especially hard by the cuts at NIH. Even for our most senior faculty, grant renewals have become nearly impossible or have been delayed for a year. This means downsizing teams and infrastructure. Recovering from a blow like this is not easy. It takes years to build up groups with the knowledge and expertise that can accumulate the insights that result in breakthroughs and new knowledge.

Our Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BMB), for example, recently lost a basic research training grant that had been funded for 25 years. It was a small grant for reproductive biology but it allowed for training doctoral students and supported a network of researchers throughout Johns Hopkins. Now it’s likely gone permanently.

That department’s remarkable momentum, built up in the last few years under the energetic leadership of Pierre Coulombe, is being jeopardized. As Pierre told me the other day, “We have been progressively switching from a growth, to a maintenance, to now a survival mode. Some of our newly recruited faculty worry about the future—and who could blame them? Despite all this, we continue to put out stellar science.”

This is just one example from one department but it’s happening throughout our School and across the nation. What does this say to a generation of prospective doctoral students who have the knowledge and the drive to contribute to science? It tells them, you need not apply. It says, don’t bank on scientific research as a stable career choice.

I don’t want to think about the future discoveries lost, the new knowledge that will never see the light of day because of the sequestration.

Sadly, this is not just about sequestration in the short term. Here’s what concerns me the most: Is this a paradigm shift? Do we, as a nation, truly want to retreat from investing in research? Do we want to say no to innovation? Do we want to back away from investing in our future?

Such a course will unalterably change the future of the Bloomberg School and our nation. About two-thirds of the School’s funding comes from government research grants, with NIH being the top funder. Significant cuts in the government’s research budget will lead to stagnating knowledge about how to save lives and a diminished selection of future tools to make meaningful differences in the health of millions. Ultimately it means ceding scientific leadership—and thus the future—to other countries.

I am so proud of the vital work this School does, and at the core of what we do is research. It drives our advances in education and in the field. Our School is 98 years old, and during that long history, research has been the foundation of our contributions, whether in making discoveries, producing new leaders or advancing public health practice.

Our long track record of accomplishment is at risk, not so much now but in the years ahead as we lose the leaders of tomorrow. We need to let our elected officials know to be judicious in meeting their fiscal responsibilities. And we need, as never before, philanthropic support for our mission of saving lives, millions at a time.