Printed on: September 13, 2013

Getting our priorities straight

As if you didn't have enough to worry about, now there's the demise of research funding. Why should you care? Because scientific progress reaches into your life in myriad ways, from the food you eat to the flights you board to the heart medicine you or your loved one take on a daily basis.

Most of this life-improving research occurs in our nation's universities. These labs are heavily dependent on federal dollars to run their programs, and those programs are now experiencing catastrophic cuts as a result of sequestration.

In a July news conference, Paul B. Rothman, dean of the medical faculty of Johns Hopkins Medicine, explained that congressional budget cuts will cripple promising research in cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, HIV and neuroscience. This should trouble everyone. The effects of these cuts will not be fully realized until it is too late to remedy them in any simple way. Research takes time and money.

At least 700 research grants were cut this year because of sequestration, including 12 at John Hopkins. "Who knows which one of those grants might have been the next breakthrough in cancer?" asks Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Research isn't the only area affected by public funding. A state's economy depends on programs that train for today's job market. Retired University of Idaho economist Stephen Cooke told the Idaho Statesman that a state with a poorly educated workforce will draw businesses that pay less, not the high-tech jobs necessary for a vibrant economy.

This problem is evident in the fact that Idaho has tripled its number of call-center jobs in recent years. These jobs not only start out a lot lower than tech-sector jobs, they pay about $7,000 less than call center averages in other states.

In a recent opinion piece, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter cited a "sense of urgency about improving education" and lamented the disconnect between the skill sets of Idaho workers and the companies hoping to employ them. Yet this sentiment is not supported by a conservative majority in the Idaho Legislature that has cut funding for higher education by 20 percent over the last several years. And many of our state legislators shrilly denounce government-funded programs of all stripes -- even those that support research and development in our universities.

In the short-sighted rush to shrink government, we are abandoning the very investments that support a healthy economy and improved quality of life. Funding vital research and providing the kind of educated workforce that attracts better jobs should be a top priority for Idaho legislators and the voters who keep them in office.

Anderson is a teacher in the Madison School District.