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Of Stipends and Science: As research funding dries up and the cost of living rises, can the School maintain the same number of graduate students?

February 2008--Before Brice Wilson leaves the run-down Fells Point row house that he shares with a roommate, he turns the thermostat all the way to “off” because the BGE bills are through the roof.  He fills his cupboard with cans of cheap garbanzo beans to make hummus sandwiches on week-old bread from H&S Bakery, and he only goes out for fun on Friday night. Some of his friends have enrolled in clinical trials just to get by. Wilson hasn’t gone that far because, he says, “I don’t like needles.”

Wilson, who works on prostate cancer research in the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences, and nearly 800 fellow graduate students in the School of Medicine receive stipends of $26,200 per year—not too shabby by grad school standards. But with after-tax take home pay of about 1,700 bucks a month, he says, “it’s actually surprisingly difficult to make ends meet in Baltimore.”

And while the cost of living creeps up, overall funding for research has flattened, leading some Hopkins professors to worry if they can keep their labs stocked with this highly talented labor force. In fact, School of Medicine leaders have recently raised the possibility of taking on slightly fewer graduate students in the future to help curb the economic crunch.

The now-fabled NIH budget doubling between 1998 and 2004 helped bring a wealth of grad students to the School of Medicine campus, doubling their population to about 800 and packing introductory courses with more than 100 students each year. The number of faculty members teaching graduate students increased just as dramatically, and money poured in for junior researchers.

But when the boom era ended several years back, a new cruel reality set in. While graduate students have come to expect a cost-of-living pay increase every year, now even a nominal raise strains the ability of departments and laboratories to maintain student numbers at their current levels. At a recent meeting of basic science department heads, David Nichols, vice dean for education, warned that student enrollment in future incoming classes may need to be cut back to make way for small pay raises—which he considers necessary due to the rising cost of Baltimore living.

The idea of taking on fewer new students doesn’t sit well with Gerald Hart, director of Biological Chemistry, who believes that the consequences of cutting back on students would be dire. New faculty won’t come on board, and others will leave Hopkins for universities where money isn’t so tight. Students, he notes, are the “engine that drives the research” around Hopkins.

The competing pressures—of making do with decreased funding while keeping stipends high enough to lure students—brought about an agreement to increase pay by 2.5 percent for the next academic year.  Even without the boost, School of Medicine students are already better off financially than many of those at Homewood, points out Philip Cole, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences. “One of my students from Homewood doing the same type of research makes $4,000 to $5,000 less than the students here,” Cole says, quick to add that he doesn’t advocate reducing the stipends of the School of Medicine graduate students.

Peter Maloney, associate dean for graduate student affairs, says that because graduate student funding within the University is based on democratic principles, there hasn’t ever been a case where a lack of funds curtailed a student’s Ph.D. program. The first money in comes from external sources—largely from NIH training and research grants—that amount to about 80 percent of funding for the entire graduate student body. After that, the departments and the Dean’s Office guarantees that it will cover the remaining 20 percent for all the students under their tutelage for their entire programs. So if one researcher loses funding for a project and can’t afford his or her students, departments typically kick in. The Dean’s Office sometimes also helps cover the gaps.

Professor of Neuroscience Gabriele Ronnett believes that times may get tough over the next several years and that the time has come to look into possibilities for funding in the world of private donations. “Classical philanthropy largely goes to causes, diseases or buildings,” she says. Ronnett believes there could be a wealth of potential in mining these private sources for students and faculty as well.

Even with the slowdown in NIH funding, the School remains a top recipient of the Institutes’ training grants. “NIH likes what we do, so it hasn’t been difficult” to continue supporting the current enrollment numbers, Maloney says. But still, he says, Nichols’ wake-up call to the departments should be heeded: Don’t take on more students than you can afford.

--Victoria Bruce

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