THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE -- Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced a projected $54 billion budget deficit for California. As a result, the University of California faces budget cuts. But the UC system is already running in starvation mode from cuts made during the last recession.
Now is the time to invest in research and higher education. It is critical to retain UC funding so that we can continue to drive California’s economy.
UC Riverside (UCR), where I am currently a faculty member, is the largest employer in Riverside County. UC Irvine (UCI), where I was a postdoctoral researcher, is the second-largest employer in Orange County. The University of California is a key driver of upward mobility in California and the nation. UCR ranks No. 1 in social mobility, followed by UC Santa Cruz and UCI.
Consider too that the UC system, and UCR in particular, serve populations disproportionately harmed by COVID-19. UCR is 86 percent non-white, 56 percent first-generation college students, and enrolls more Pell Grant students than all of the Ivy League combined. UCR and UCI are both Hispanic-serving institutions, with Hispanics or Latinos making up nearly 40 percent of UCR and 26 percent of UCI students.
Cuts will cause particular harm to campuses such as UCR, which receives lower state funding per student compared to other UCs — $21,496 per UCR student in 2018-19 compared to $29,487 per UCLA student. Other UCs may be able to rely on support from corporations or alumni donations to cover budget shortfalls, but that is not an option for UCR, whose alumni base is younger and smaller. We will not be able to adequately serve our students if our budget is cut.
Consider, too, the crucial role of research in determining collective resilience to this and future pandemics. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) — arguably the most important innovation in modern scientific history, and one of the key chemical reactions used to detect COVID-19 — was discovered as a result of basic science research. Research is critical to getting a vaccine, and we need science firing on all cylinders.
Food security will continue to be an issue as this pandemic lingers, and researchers in my Microbiology and Plant Pathology Department help safeguard the food supply by combating the many plant pathogens facing our crops. For example, we protect California’s treasured orange and avocado crops from invasive pathogens and we find beneficial microbes to promote crop growth in the face of human-caused stressors.
As forests are destroyed and habitats fragmented, the risk of pathogen spillovers and zoonotic transfers — pathogens that transfer from animals to humans and led to the COVID-19 pandemic — will only continue to rise. Environmental and ecological research is more important than ever to ensure sustainability and resilience to compounding stressors such as the upcoming wildfire season.
Finally, social scientists play a key role in crafting and implementing public policy following scientific discovery. Professors in the humanities promote critical thinking skills that are increasingly necessary in this age of misinformation, and they provide contextual and historical background on government responses to public crises.
Some may say these are hard times and everyone will need to take a cut. But we must invest in the research apparatus and public universities if we hope to come out of this pandemic stronger and more resilient. Persistent federal science and education funding declines have led to a sluggish response to COVID-19.
While I agree that short-term monetary infusions to focus on testing, food banks and unemployment benefits are necessary, it is also imperative that our short-term decisions do not permanently damage the ability of the UC system to do research and educate Californians.
I am a millennial, and I was a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley when the 2008 recession hit and left long-lasting negative impacts on our universities. Millennials and today’s Gen Z students and recent graduates already have lower salaries and fewer opportunities than the generations before us. If we cut UC funding, we further disadvantage future generations who are already suffering. Our students deserve better than this.
I implore Gov. Newsom to invest in us and in California’s future.
Sydney Glassman is assistant professor of microbiology and plant pathology at the University of California, Riverside. @sydneyglassman
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