All posts by Dr. Michael Forster

Dr. Michael Forster

Health reseach getting hammered by the federal sequester

Need more evidence that our politics have become dysfunctional in the extreme?  Probably not.  But here’s some more anyway – Budget cuts tied to sequestration (itself a sign of serious political dysfunction) are driving some of our best scientists out of the U.S.  So says the chief of the National Institutes of Health, anyway.

Dr. Francis Collins has sounded the alarm, pointing to a recent study by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).  Among the study findings: 80% of university-based scientists report more time writing grants than they did three years ago, with over 2/3 suffering federal funding cuts for their research.  Universities don’t have the means to take up the slack, spelling disruption or elimination of research projects. More than half the scientists report, moreover, knowing colleagues who have been laid off.  As a result, close to 20% of scientists are now thinking seriously about trying to move their work out of the U.S. to a country with more reliable support for research.

The sequester – there’s a mandated 5% cut to non-military spending – could suck up to $1 billion for research out of the federal budget.  The damage will not be limited to sending some research colleagues abroad, but will carry forward in the form of fewer, smaller grants awarded and fewer students accepted to science doctoral programs.

If this seems like the intellectual equivalent as failing to repair our decaying physical infrastructure of roads and bridges, it is.

Dr. Collins isn’t afraid to tell it like it is to anyone willing to listen, and especially austerity-minded politicians - “If you want to convert this into real meaningful numbers, that means people are going to die of influenza five years from now because we don’t yet have the universal vaccine,” Dr. Collins said. “And God help us if we get a worldwide pandemic that emerges in the next five years, which takes a long time to prepare a vaccine for.”

Dr. Michael Forster

College kudos overlook Southern Miss, Alcorn, Jackson State

Today’s Clarion-Ledger carries a Section B story titled “State’s Colleges Gaining Notice.”   Nice notes from writer Dustin Barnes on a number of Mississippi’s public universities.  Mississippi State ranks as a top research university, certainly the top banana in the state.  Delta State garners kudos for leading “green” efforts to reduce energy consumption.  Mississippi Valley is a super bargain and ranks high in graduate earnings.  Ole Miss is among the “most literary” of universities in the nation, right up there with Smith College, Princeton, and Harvard.  Little MUW, finally, is said to be one of the best colleges in the country to work for.

Okay, that’s five of eight publics enjoying at least a sliver of limelight.  Not bad for the state; commissioner Bounds and the college board ought to be smiling today.  But not so good if you’re Jackson State, Alcorn, or Southern Miss, and don’t seem to merit a mention.  What are we, Mr. Barnes, the chopped liver of Mississippi higher ed?  You’re a newsman; dig a little deeper, will you?

Dr. Michael Forster

Poverty hurts health, so why don’t we seem to care?

I just saw some new research work on the relation of poverty and health, but I won’t relate that here, now.  Just assume for the moment that the connection is crystal clear.  It would seem to follow, then, that if we (i.e. the USA) were serious, as we claim to be, about affecting health outcomes, we’d be a helluva lot more serious about addressing poverty than we appear to be – especially given that poverty has been on the rise for decades, and continues to climb.

Sadly, many of the same policymakers who stay in a constant lather over trying to roll back Obamacare (that would be a large number of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives) seem either oblivious to the long-term corrosive impacts of poverty, or, worse, intent on eroding the few social supports – food stamps, unemployment insurance, health care access – that mitigate those impacts.

Is “compassionate conservatism” so absolutely and completely dead – perhaps a relic of a time when politicians at least occasionally rose to the call of statesmanship and made efforts to solve problems of substance for the general welfare of the people?

If so, why?  Can anyone in Washington really, with a straight face, embrace the tired canard that poverty is caused by “too much welfare” for “people who don’t want to work”?  What’s next?  Poor people seeking health care “really don’t want to be well”?

Dr. Michael Forster

Can there be doubt? Rock ‘n’ roll keeps you young

I just read that Mick Jagger turned 70 yesterday.  (Keith Richards hits the big 7-0 in a few months.)  If Jagger has lost a step, it’s not evident.  The Rolling Stones are still touring, still recording.  The group celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with four mega-concerts featuring, without doubt, Jagger bounding about on stage like a teenager.  This from a guy who once said he’d be dead before he’d sing “Satisfaction” at age 45.

Jagger’s got plenty of company.  Paul McCartney is 71, as is Paul Simon and Carole King.  Bob Dylan is 70.  Irma Thomas (“soul queen of New Orleans”) is 72.  At a mere 63, Bruce Springsteen is a veritable youngster.

The evidence is in – Want to stay young?  Keep the music playing!

Dr. Michael Forster

Is public higher education “an undisciplined system”?

President Obama – certainly with good reason for feeling frustrated these days – seems to want to take that frustration out on higher education.  In today’s speech on the economy, the president assailed higher ed for pushing students and families ever deeper into debt, and promised to aggressively “shake up” an “undisciplined system where costs just keep going up and up and up.”

But one doubts here that Obama is taking care to distinguish between “cost” and “price.”  A close look at public universities, especially in poor states like Mississippi, might reveal that the actual cost to educate students has in fact, when adjusted for inflation, gone up very little, while the price to students has indeed jumped dramatically.  But why?  Not because public universities have been wasteful, become more inefficient, bloated their administrative ranks, etc. etc., but because legislatures, exhibiting a market-based consumerist, shrink-government-spending perspective, have steadily “disinvested” in higher education.  With fewer state dollars coming to public universities like Southern Miss, the student tuition burden (and hence the debt burden) has steadily risen.

Yes, there has to be accountability and transparency.  But don’t put it all on higher education, Mr. President.  Be generous; spread it around to all the responsible parties.