Pennington Biomedical Research Center

When John Kirwan was recruited from the Cleveland Clinic, one of the premier medical institutions in the world, he came to Louisiana just in time for a doomsday budget — exactly the kind of problem that the new head of LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center cannot reasonably explain to other scientists that our state wants to attract here.

Another cut? Maybe in Louisiana we're used to doomsday coming around every time the dysfunctional Legislature gathers for its budgetary rites of spring.

But if you are a scientist looking to build a career, bringing with you more in federal and private-sector grants than the state pays you, why not go to some other institution that enjoys the steady and reliable support of its state's taxpayers?

For Kirwan, it's a puzzle: He touted the academic and research successes of the center over 30 years, after one of Baton Rouge's genuine characters, C.B. "Doc" Pennington, lavishly endowed its construction on LSU-owned farmland on Perkins Road in the capital city.

Perhaps at the time, the goal of creating world-class research into nutrition might have seemed quaint, in the world of electronics and computing that were then the vogue in economic development. Now, old Doc looks prescient indeed, with the vast social and economic problems like obesity and diabetes — a particular plague in Louisiana — targeted by Pennington researchers.

Long before Kirwan's arrival in January, the center had a checkered history of support from its ostensible backers at the state level; it did not even open for a while after construction, and since has failed to attract the state seed money it needs to run on all cylinders.

For Kirwan, now, about a $600,000 cut is his estimate if the governor and Legislature cannot fund the state budget — and many members of the GOP House appear to be digging in against reasonable tax reforms needed to replace expiring temporary taxes. Maybe he won't have to lay anyone off. But Kirwan told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that as Pennington researchers put three dollars into Louisiana's economy for every dollar of state investment, the cut is a real one economically.

Of course, Pennington is not alone. Among many, LSU's other institutions and campuses in the University of Louisiana system — from UNO in the Crescent City to Northwestern in Natchitoches — face cuts if the doomsday budget is not averted. Yet some in the Legislature appear to fear lynching if they vote to replace expiring revenues to avert the cuts.

Suburban legislators routinely get hysterical about the cuts proposed for TOPS tuition waivers for rather ordinary students. But as we hollow out institutions in the name of cutting government, Louisiana's young people get less, albeit indirectly, because we're not paying for the quality brainpower to teach them.

In each case, Louisiana is falling further behind in a worldwide competition for intellectual capital. For Pennington's new executive director, it must be somewhat mystifying as our state — as well as many heartland states in the country — faces "an obesity tsunami that is drowning the country." Kirwan said obesity, diabetes and Alzheimer's are a $10 billion chronic disease problem for Louisiana. Despite obstacles, Pennington is contributing to the solutions.

A "fiscal cliff" is in view as temporary taxes expire. But real investments in real economic and social benefits is not a fall off the cliff as much as a slide, neglecting the future for short-term politics.

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